In December 2021, snow closed the major highways in northern California, including I-80. With those routes closed, Google Maps and Waze (also owned by Google) suggested routes that sent people on rural roads through the Sierra Nevada Mountains. People ended up stranded in the middle of nowhere. One person was quoted as saying, “Blaming vulnerable people for going down the wrong road is the same as blaming some of those poor vulnerable people who drowned in their basement apartments in New York City” during September 2021 flooding (Vigdor, 2021). This is not the only instance of drivers blindly following an app’s directions and ending up in trouble, e.g., 8 Drivers Who Blindly Followed Their GPS into Disaster, and Truck Drivers Following GPS Get into Serious Trouble.
I admit that I am struggling with this one. My primary reaction upon reading such stories is thinking that, as drivers, we cannot turn off our brains. If a snowstorm has dumped enough snow that the department of transportation cannot keep the biggest highways open, how could the secondary roads possibly be open? Now, being a psychological scientist, my next thought is, “Wait. Am I blaming the victim?” Are the drivers who chose to follow their phone’s GPS victims of technology? But the drivers were not forced to follow those directions, so are they really victims of their own making?
I grew up with snow in a mountain-y, rural area, so I have a lot of knowledge about snow and mountains and rural roads. For drivers who do not have that experience, is it reasonable to think that they and I share the same “common sense”? In grad school at the University of Kansas, a friend who had grown up in Kansas and I took a road trip back to my home state of Pennsylvania. As I-80 (the same highway that was closed in that northern California snowstorm) started into the Allegheny Mountains, the speed limit dropped from 70mph to 55mph. My friend who had no experience driving on major highways through mountains could not comprehend why the speed limit had dropped. I, foolishly, told her that if she thought she could drive 70mph to give it a try. She quickly discovered that they had built the road according to the terrain, so sharp turns that are more judiciously taken at 55mph are part of the driving experience. All of that is to say that our experience of driving conditions is not universally shared.
Instead of following their GPS, let’s imagine that the drivers had pulled over and asked a local resident for directions, and the local suggested a snow-packed rural route that the drivers then followed. To me, the drivers now feel more like victims of bad advice, and blaming the drivers does feel like blaming the victim. But is there really any difference between a driver who trusts the advice of a local and a driver who trusts the advice of their phone’s GPS?
This could be an interesting discussion with your students after you have introduced the blaming the victim concept. A few years ago, The Atlantic had a pretty good article on blaming the victim if you would like your students to have a bit more information about the concept (Roberts, 2016). Describe the snowstorm incident, and then ask students if the drivers were victims of technology or victims of their own making. Ask them to explain why. If the predominant answer is blaming the victim (victim of their own making), ask students if the directions had been given to the drivers by a local resident, would it change their thinking. Why or why not?
Roberts, K. (2016, October 5). The psychology of victim blaming. The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2016/10/the-psychology-of-victim-blaming/502661/
Vigdor, N. (2021, December 31). Snow closed the highways. GPS mapped a harrowing detour in the Sierra Nevada. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/12/31/us/google-maps-waze-sierra-nevada-snow.html
Source: macmillan psych community