Death of two Kerala doctors sparks a debate: Does Google Maps fail you during inclement weather?

In the latest incident of using Google Maps during the monsoon to track the road, two doctors died after their car plunged into a river.

ByK A Shaji

Published Oct 03, 2023 | 12:00 PMUpdatedOct 03, 2023 | 12:00 PM

Google Map

The accident in which two doctors drowned when their car plunged into the Periyar river after being allegedly misled by Google Maps near Kochi on Sunday, 1 October, has sparked a heated debate in Kerala over the growing — some say blind — dependence on GPS-based navigation.

The local police said that visibility was very low because of heavy rain late on Sunday night, and that the person driving the car took it forward ignoring a suggestion from Google Maps to take a left turn.

Yet, social media users were seen blaming the navigation app for the drowning of doctors Advaith and Ajmal, both 29.

The three others in the car, who had a providential escape from the ill-fated vehicle, said the driver had mistaken the river for a waterlogged road and drove ahead, and the navigation platform had nothing to do with the tragedy.

Social media was nevertheless flooded with harrowing experiences of people who depended on Google Maps. They included ending up at strange, less-than-desired locations, and meeting with accidents.

Many said Google Maps’ attempts to reduce travel distance by suggesting remote roads was to blame. While reaching a remote area guided by Google Maps could be tolerated, people dying after driving into a river was a matter of grave concern, they said.

Also read: Glitches galore but accident deaths down due to AI cameras

Glitches in low-network conditions

Just two years ago, the Fire and Rescue Services Department of Kerala had to undertake an elaborate rescue operation in a dense forest to save a three-member family that lost its way after following Google Maps.

Human rights activist Dr Nawab Wajid, his wife Dr Naima, and their relative Shana were stranded in the dense Kuttiyar Valley forest near Munnar after being misled by the navigation app. The forest area is known for its elephants, tigers, and bison.

The three had lost their way while returning from Top Station and Vattavada, two major tourist spots near Munnar.

Hailing from north Kerala, the family depended on Google Maps to return to the private resort in Devikulam where they were staying.

After reaching Ettam Mile in Mattupetty, they turned from the Munnar route to the Kuttiyar Valley route. Though the family could have reached Devikulam using this route, they lost the way in between.

With no idea about the route, the group drove through tea estates and dense forests for five hours until their vehicle got stuck in slush.

From the area, which had a very weak mobile signal, they sent their location and message to the fire and rescue unit.

Though a nine-member rescue team reached the area soon enough, they still needed to locate the exact spot where the three were stranded.

The fire force team trekked to an elevated area in Kuttiyar Valley and switched on their searchlights. On seeing this, Wajid also switched on the lights of his car.

The rescue officials reached them after around six hours. Then, it was an arduous task to pull the vehicle out of the slush and bring the group back to the resort.

Also read: 9 women killed as jeep falls into gorge in Wayanad

One from last year

In the Kochi incident, the deceased doctors were travelling amidst heavy rains to Kodungallur, and their car plunged into Periyar at a locality near Gothuruth.

Advaith and Ajmal worked at a private hospital in the district, and the incident occurred around 2.30 am.

In August last year, Parachal in the Kottayam district witnessed a similar incident when a car, in which a family lost their way while following Google Maps, drove into a canal, with the currents sweeping it downstream.

The family was returning to Kumbanad from Ernakulam when the accident occurred at about 10.30 pm.

Thanks to the vigilance and quick rescue operations by local residents, they were able to save Dr V Soniya, her three-month-old daughter, mother Sosamma, and relative Anish from the car.

By the time locals realised something was wrong and helped the car’s occupants, the vehicle had drifted 300 metres downstream, putting the family in grave danger.

The locals arrived and anchored the car with a rope after the family called for help as the car began to slide.

Also read: 5 ISRO canteen employees killed as car hits truck in Alappuzha

A few months ago

Only a few months ago, three people travelling in a car followed a route shown by Google Maps, but the vehicle fell into a water-filled trench dug up to construct a bridge. All three passengers escaped with minor injuries.

The trio was travelling in a car to Munnar via the Palamattam-Avolichal road in the Idukki district. The car fell upside down into a 30-foot-deep trench near Palamattam.

Gokuldas, Isahakh, and Mustafa noticed that there was no road ahead only after reaching the edge of the trench. Though the driver quickly tried to turn the car, he lost control, and it fell into the trench.

The passengers did not understand what was happening due to the darkness and mist. The three did not know how to swim and had to hang on to the car for about 15 minutes until help arrived.

Many people depend on Google Maps to visit Munnar, a major tourism destination in Kerala, and other high-range areas. The map shows Palamattam-Avolicahal Road as the shortcut to Munnar from Kothamangalam.

Minutes after the three men were rescued, a six-member group arrived in the area guided by Google Maps. The locals informed them about the accident and sent them back.

In August, two people travelling in a car at Varkala near Thiruvananthapuram suddenly lost Google Maps’ signal and were stuck on a narrow, unmotorable road. The car was eventually retrieved, but not without severe damage.

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Kerala Police issue warning

In the aftermath of the tragedy in Kochi, the Kerala Police on Monday, 2 October, issued an advisory on using Google Maps for travel, especially during the monsoon.

In a Facebook post, the state police force warned people against travelling through unfamiliar routes during the monsoon season.

Listing the dos and don’ts while using Google Maps, the police said routes were often diverted during monsoons, but they might not appear on the map.

“Google Maps is very helpful for driving these days. However, taking unfamiliar routes by looking at the map, especially during monsoons, is sometimes dangerous,” the post said.

The state police said the app might show a route with less traffic, but such routes may not be safer. “Google Maps may lead to impassable roads with overflowing streams, landslides, fallen trees, narrow and dangerous roads where smooth movement is not possible,” the post read.

The police also urged people to save maps ahead for reference in case they lose their GPS signal en route while travelling.

“Don’t forget to select the proper mode of travel on the map. Choose between four-wheeler, two-wheeler, bicycle, walking, and train options. Please note that a four-wheeler cannot take a bike’s route,” the Facebook post said.

The police also asked the public to use the “contribute” option on the map about a traffic jam or a roadblock to help other users.

(With PTI inputs)