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Online maps that steer you wrong

As more travelers come to rely on Web sites for directions, they're discovering that computer maps can sometimes lead them astray.

Online mapping services were supposed to be a godsend for business travelers when they were introduced a few years ago. But for motorists like Diane Taub, the devil was in the turn-by-turn directions.

Taub, a computer tutor from Merrick, N.Y., has become lost using every major Web site, including MapQuest, MSN Maps and Directions, and Yahoo Maps.

The maps became a problem when she relocated to New York from Miami recently. "On Long Island, two nearby towns may have roads with the same name," she said. The sites do not draw a clear distinction, she added, "So it's easy to make a turn on the wrong one."

Her frustration recently boiled over when she queried three mapping sites for directions to LaGuardia Airport, and received three different sets of instructions. "Mapping sites give me a false sense of security," she said. "I don't trust them anymore."

Neither do a lot of business travelers. As increasing numbers of travelers come to rely on the sites for directions (about four of five business trips are by car), they are discovering that computer maps can sometimes lead them astray.

Roughly 1 in 50 computer-generated directions is a dud, according to Doug Richardson, the executive director for the Association of American Geographers. He blames inaccurate road information for most of the failures.

"You have to have the latest data about road characteristics--things like one-way streets, turns and exits in your system in order for it to generate accurate directions," he said.

Even if the streets remained static, online mapping would be an inexact science. Most of the major Web sites draw their data from a small group of competing suppliers and update their maps quarterly. They use a process called geocoding, which assigns a latitude-longitude coordinate to an address, to find a destination. Then their systems calculate the most efficient route. Each site handles the data in a slightly different way, which is why search results vary from mapping site to mapping site.

Online maps are free, of course. And to get something that hits the mark most of the time and doesn't cost anything, well, where's the catch?

If you're out for a Sunday drive, there is none. But business travelers know that the errors can be costly, especially when a deal hangs in the balance. The more business travelers lean on the Web-generated instructions, the greater the chance they will eventually drive away with a printout that leads them down the wrong road.

Many travelers have a story about getting lost following directions from a Web site. Vicki Burton, a process server in Chattanooga, Tenn., says the Web frequently throws her for a loop. "The police dispatchers get tired of me calling from out in the boonies when my directions don't pan out," she said. She says there are glaring errors on Internet maps. For example, she said, the road next to her house is listed as Ford Street on MapQuest, even though it has been named Beason Drive for decades.

Thanks to MapQuest, I've missed numerous business meetings in Washington. Recently, I clicked on MSN Maps and Directions to find the quickest way to an Italian restaurant in Orlando, Fla. It pointed the way to a quiet residential neighborhood but, alas, not to the pizza parlor I had in mind.

MapQuest, which claims to have a 75 percent market share, is easy for drivers to blame when they become lost. The company insists its service is reliable, with a nominal percentage of users complaining about bad information. "The vast majority of our directions are accurate," said Brian Hoyt, a spokesman for MapQuest, which is a unit of America Online. He acknowledges the crucial need to update the information to ensure continued accuracy.

Online mapping specialists say the directions will probably never be completely dependable, at least for business travelers on important road trips.

"Maps are generalized, graphic devices that help us understand the world," said Michael Peterson, the chairman of the International Cartographic Association Commission on Maps and the Internet and a professor of geography at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. "But they are not accurate depictions of reality."

So are online maps as good as they can get? Unless the world stops changing, the answer may be yes.

That doesn't mean you have to get lost. To improve your chances of making your next business meeting, consider buying a navigational computer that uses GPS technology. Those systems constantly monitor your position and calculate the most efficient course. An old-fashioned atlas would help, too.

Or you could do what Taub, the computer tutor, recently started doing.

You could ask for directions.