Driving Your Car With a Computer?

We recently make a safari across the endless Nevada desert, over foggy Donner Pass, through the freeway amazement of Sacramento and on to a very pleasant little California community aptly named Pleasanton. All this was made possible, and much easier, thanks to my GPS navigation system.

The Sacramento Thrill Ride

Picture us approaching Sacramento at 6:00 PM. We had perfectly timed the trip so we could experience the thrill of rush hour traffic while navigating the famous California freeway maze.

Our excitement was heightened by the opportunity of driving blindly into the setting sun. Pulling down the windshield visor blocked all the approaching freeway signs hindering any attempt at normal human navigation. Essentially I was driving blind with cars darting and whizzing by all around us. I felt our van had magically turned into the roller coaster at Disneyland’s Thunder Mountain.

How the Garmin Saved Me

Luckily I didn’t have to make any freeway changes for the first 10 minutes allowing me to acclimatize to whirring and workings of everyday freeway life. Soon I discovered I could use my eyes like I use my dual monitor computer system. My left eye was focused on the brake lights of the car directly in front of us while my right eye scanned the Garmin GPS on the dash. I quickly learned my old brain could still multitask while driving. I could avoid accidents and watch the Garmin so we wouldn’t get lost.

My advanced degree in defensive driving with a minor in celestial navigation was awarded after I had successfully merged from one freeway, immediately moved quickly and safely across five lanes of traffic, while slowing enough to “exit right” to a cloverleaf entrance to another freeway! I was amazed we made it through without one accident or the Garmin tactfully announcing my defeat with “Recalculating – Recalculating.”

I love technology and can’t wait until some genius marries my GPS car navigator (Garmin Nuvi) with my beloved cruise control. Now that would be worth trying to survive another 20 years!

Reasons to Get a Car GPS Navigator

I will limit myself to a few of the many reasons you really need a GPS for your car. It will also eliminate backseat driving recommendations from the passenger side windbag – Oops! I meant “Airbag.”

Family History GPS Tagging. Most GPS systems have a GPS coordinates screen. The purpose is for you to enter coordinates and then let the device direct you to the desired destination.

When I take my GPS into a cemetery, I take a photo of the grave and then take a photo of the coordinate screen. Later I can import the photos into my computer and Heritage Collector software so I can transfer the GPS coordinates to the photo of the grave. Next I use the GPS Maps module in Heritage Collector to create beautiful cemetery maps I can print or turn into a PDF for my relatives and kids. Go to this link (GPS Maps Module) for step-by-step instructions and movies about getting and using GPS coordinates to make maps.

Getting Gas. I have a tendency to gas up at larger towns along the travel route so I can save a few dollars. We all know that getting gas out in the boondocks along the freeway will cost a lot more. My Garmin has two great options. If you are really desperate, running on fumes with the little red gas pump blinking on your instrument panel, click the GPS Fuel option. It will display a list of the closest gas stations, with arrows pointing the direction and the number of miles to the gas station.

We love to save money by getting gas at Costco. So how do you find a Costco when you are driving on the freeway? Simple. Click the “Points of Interest” option and then click “Spell Name.” Type in Costco and press Done. In a few seconds the Garmin will display all the Costco locations within 150 miles. This little trick also works to find Walmart, Safeway or the closest Olive Garden restaurant.

Never Get Lost and Save Time. It’s easy to resume your journey once you navigated to the gas station, store, or restaurant. You can easily return back to the motel where you are staying or enter a new destination and let your Garmin take you there.

Accurate Arrival Time. One of the lesser known features of a Garmin GPS is the Arrival Time indicator. It’s really nice to know how long it will take to get to your destination. “Are we there yet?” I used to despise that question from my kids. Now all you have to say is, “Watch this little place and it will tell you exactly when we will get there.”

Speed Limit Signs. How many times have you glanced down at the speedometer, sucked in a lot of air, followed by a quick glance in your rear view mirror and hoped you won’t see a speed cop with flashing red and blue lights? My Garmin places a little speed limit sign to indicate the speed of the road I’m traveling. It’s great to know and actually saves time since I tend to drive slower to a avoid speed trap in a small town if I don’t know the speed limit.

Elevation. Ok, I’m a geek. I like to know the approximate elevation of my travels. I also miss about half of the little elevation signs as they sneak past if I’m not looking exactly at right spot at the right time. Garmin has a setting to let you know the elevation at any time you are interested.

Goodies. My Garmin let’s me do hands free calling and speaking via my bluetooth cell phone, plays MP3s and displays photos from my SD card.

Lane Change Indicator. Garmin places a little green box in the upper left of the display showing if your next turn will be to the right or left. This is a real help on a freeway or busy road. All the locals know the correct lane to be in far in advance. This makes it impossible for you to get into the right or left turn lane because it may be full for the next block or mile on a freeway exit. It also tells you how many miles you have before you need to turn.

Traffic Indicator. This is a “must have” feature if you live or drive in a congested area. My Garmin can actually route me around rush hour traffic or an accident because it can “see” ahead down my route. It gets local information via a built in FM receiver. I purchased a Garmin with free lifetime traffic alerts. However, you need to check for this free feature.

Garmin Gremlins

In fairness, there are a few little trolls built into every GPS. My Garmin is not perfect and has gotten us lost a few times. Sometimes it’s not Garmin’s fault. The restaurant may have closed or relocated. The city moved or changed their speed limit signs, closed a road, and didn’t update the national map database.

Be careful when setting the shortest route. This is perfect if you are the adventurous type and want to travel the back roads. We had such an unplanned adventure during our last trip to Yosemite National Park. I didn’t know I had changed to the shortest route.

As we traveled we were marveling at the beauty and vastness of the grape vineyards of Northern California. Soon I noted the road signs (Road 24)were a bit strange and not helpful.

At one point I became a bit nervous when “Garmie” (our affectionate name for the Garmin) told us to turn right on Road 23. A big yellow sign greeted us with the message, “This is not a through road.” Oh boy! We weren’t lost but I didn’t have any idea where we were or how close we were to the south gate of Yosemite. Gas gauge check – half a tank so I wasn’t stressed yet.

We were traveling a little winding back country road with exquisite scenery, a few scattered farms, and no cell phone services so were really on our own. Eventually we made contact with the real world and gassed up after checking the “Fuel” option so I could avoid the tourist trap gas stations and get cheaper gas where the locals get it.


Study and plan your travel routes on Google Maps. Get an idea of the local attractions and check some alternate routes. Roads may be closed for a variety of reasons. It would be foolish to depend entirely on your GPS so print out some maps and store them in your travel binder for a good old backup reference guide if you get really lost!

Don’t leave your GPS navigation device on your dashboard unattended. There are many people who’d love to adopt it. Put it out of site BEFORE you stop so others will not know you have a GPS in your car.

Happy GPS Travels,

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