Google Maps and Waze led me astray during the I-95 blizzard

Traffic backed up on Virginia Highway 1 after being rerouted from I-95 at Fredericksburg, Virginia, on January 4, 2022. Photo: Chip Somodevilla (Getty Images)

Senator Tim Kaine and I have something in common: we were extremely unwise to drive through the state of Virginia on Monday, when the combination of winter storms and the traditional regional practice of doing nothing about it has screwed us both over 20 hours.

Monday’s storm dumped more than a foot of snow across parts of eastern Virginia, with significant accumulation extending into Maryland. This was not a good thing, because as anyone who has lived along that stretch knows, the area’s response to dangerous winter weather usually falls into two simultaneous extremes: panic and recklessness. The panic is because the region is usually unprepared for snowfall, to the extent that a few inches of snow in DC is capable of pushing the U.S. government to a strangled stoppage. The recklessness occurs when drivers unaccustomed to winter conditions inevitably take to the road and act as if sleet is a speed enhancer.

That’s all under normal circumstances. But a spectacular disaster began to unfold Monday as, as has been widely reported, the State Department of Transportation was unable to take basic steps such as pre-treat roads with salt, and snowblowers were completely overwhelmed. On I-95, one of the country’s main monuments for the nightmare cult of car ownership, this meant thousands of drivers got stuck in stationary traffic as of Monday morning. Some spent more than 24 hours there, feeling dangerously low on food, drink and gas as temperatures plummeted into the teens – Sen. Kaine told the media that his commute to DC took about 27 hours. Fortunately no one died.

The vast majority of the blame is justified focused on VDOT, but I have one more grudge to get off my chest: I blame Google for a 20-plus hour drive to hell, including a 10-hour stint on I-95. specifically, Google Maps and Waze.

The journey started innocently enough: On Monday around 11:30 am, my partner and I left a hotel in Virginia Beach, en route to DC. There was a storm outside and we’d heard reports of trouble on the roads further north, but Google Maps gave us a not-too-bad estimate for the 309-mile drive beforehand. However, according to my partner, it has taken into account the possibility of a six to seven hour delay when put into navigation mode. As the snow had all but stopped, we made a bad guess that the situation would improve and left.

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(Revelation: I can’t drive because I’ve had my license expired. So I served mostly as a witness and navigational aid as we slowly, very slowly made our way to relentless doom on I-95.)

As we passed Richmond, we switched to an alternate route suggested by Google Maps to help us avoid the absolute worst delays on I-95, though it still insisted we get on that eventually. We stopped at a Chili’s and downloaded Waze, Google’s other navigation app. We considered taking an alternate route via Route 301, but Google Maps and Waze agreed on one thing: I-95 would definitely be faster, despite confusing estimates of delays. In retrospect, this would have been a good time to check the news and see that the status of Google’s proposed route was already making national headlines, or that state officials were warning people to stay away. Instead, we relied on the apps’ estimated slowdowns, which fluctuated wildly.

We reached Falmouth near Fredericksburg shortly before nightfall – by which time hundreds of people were stuck on stretches of I-95 in our path for most of the day. Waze, clearly assuming it was much smarter than it actually was, tried to guide us around a blockade by taking some side roads (maps suggested similar routes). The only problem was that these side roads had not been plowed, covered in snow and ice, and were soon overrun by hundreds of other drivers whose GPS had clearly come up with the same idea. This was when we first got stuck: we neglected to follow a particularly alarming road suggested by Waze, but while trying to overtake a car on another unplowed street, our right tires got stuck in a snow bank. A Good Samaritan who lived nearby helpfully came out with shovels, but the road was full of other cars that got stuck, including a van that we had to help excavate first. By the time we finally got out of there, over two hours had passed.

Shortly before we left, the Good Samaritan said apps must have been responsible for the situation unfolding from his driveway, as it had been quiet all day until an avalanche of cars suddenly arrived.

Waze took us north on Route 1 for a while, but again advised us to take I-95. This was a disastrous error of judgment, though perhaps unavoidable at this point, as Waze had successfully tricked us into a trap with no other way out. More importantly, the estimated lag time fluctuated just a few hours. This was pure nonsense. After getting onto I-95 sometime around 7pm, we were greeted on I-95 by a glare of sleet and jammed cars stretching forward as far as we could see. Waze took the opportunity to give us more honest estimates of the delay, such as three and a half hours to get less than 10 miles north of a hotel.

If you’ve been sitting motionless on sleet for hours and have to start the engine frequently to get the front seats above freezing before turning it off again to save gas, weird thoughts may start to cross your mind. Completely illogical, conspiratorial thoughts like, “Hey, maybe I’ll get stuck here, endlessly refreshing Waze and searching for hotels on Google Maps, that’s what Google wanted all along.” At the very least, it was a shift in mental dialogue from earlier questions like, “Has Virginia ever heard of damn salt” or “Will the state poachers arrest me for peeing on the side of the road?”

In hindsight the The Washington Post timeline of the I-95 fiasco, certain things make more sense. The inconsistent estimates from Waze and Google Maps were probably somewhat related to VDOT’s slow timeline in acknowledging how bad the situation was; it did not admit a “complete blockage” to traffic until midnight, after drivers were stuck for hours. For some reason that belies all logic, I-95 was not officially shut down until three hours later. Presumably, Google Maps and Waze continued to recommend I-95 as a useful route until then.

“During unpredictable conditions, our team works as quickly as possible to update routes using details from local authorities, driver feedback and sudden changes in driving trends,” a Google spokesperson told Gizmodo via email. “Earlier this week, we put out a winter storm warning and discontinued the I-95 route after determining it was closed. We encourage everyone to stay alert and attentive, especially when driving in bad weather.”

More importantly, Google Maps and Waze are not like plain old paper maps of yesteryear. When you use a paper card, you are the active actor. You have to map out the route. No one ever blames an accurate paper map for being lost. But by design, navigation apps give users the comfortable illusion of blurring who exactly is in charge. They will always try to plot a route for you, however ill-advised the route search may be in the first place, and they will dutifully march you past Lemmings style, if you let them. Outside of really extreme situations like wildfires or terror attacks, they’ll never tell you that hey, maybe it’s a better idea not to drive at all.

Of course we were the ones in control. At any moment we could have cut our losses and… stopped. I found a hotel or something. Instead, we let some algorithm push us further and further, disregarding the consequences until it was too late. That thousands of other people clearly did the same is cold comfort.

Either way, there’s clearly a lesson to be learned here. If anyone knows what app I can download to find out let me know.

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