During the gold rush, the road once carried stagecoaches that meandered through what is now the National Forest and an area of Sierra Nevada known for snowmobiling.
In winter, the rough passage known as Quincy-La Porte Road or County Road 511 in Plumas County, California is closed.
But Wendy Becktold, a Bay Area editor who was on her way to see a sick relative in Reno, Nevada, on Monday, said she was unaware of this when she pulled out her rented Toyota Corolla during a record snowstorm.
Google Maps had led her in that direction because two major highways near Lake Tahoe were closed, she said in an interview Wednesday, echoing the concerns of other drivers and public safety officials about the potential dangers of over-reliance on GPS Applications.
They said that Google Maps and Waze, which are also owned by Google along with other mapping programs, don’t always consider seasonal road closures or treacherous terrain, but instead emphasize temporary road closures.
“There were a lot of cars behind us,” said Ms. Becktold. “Google Maps obviously redirected everyone the same way.”
Ms. Becktold, 50, a senior story editor for Sierra, a magazine published by the Sierra Club, said she and her cousin saw a branch on a power line and passed many shacks while unwittingly walking on. They had stopped to put chains on their tires. Then a worker in a safety vest waved it off, said Ms. Becktold, who lives in Berkeley, California.
“He said: ‘Everyone shows me their cell phones all the time,’” recalls Ms. Becktold. “He was annoyed.”
A Google Maps spokeswoman said in a statement Wednesday that the tech company is taking steps to provide drivers with accurate route information.
“Given the unpredictable conditions caused by the current snowstorm, our team is working as soon as possible to update the routes in the Lake Tahoe area based on information from local authorities,” said spokeswoman Madison Gouveia. “We are currently showing a winter storm warning to warn drivers in the area and encourage everyone to remain vigilant and vigilant.”
Google Maps did not answer questions about driver safety precautions, including warnings of winter road closures or unpaved roads. SFGate.com had previously reported about the detours.
In Washoe County, Nevada, which includes Reno, a family of five from southern California was stranded for two hours Monday night when their rented pickup truck got stuck in the snow on a two-lane gravel road, the district sheriff’s office said.
The family had sought an alternate route to visit relatives for the Truckee, Calif. Holidays, during the storm that closed an 81-mile stretch of Interstate 80 and contributed to the snowiest December in the Sierra on record.
According to the University of California, Berkeley’s Central Sierra Snow Lab, more than 10 feet of snow had fallen during the month through Thursday. The storm also closed Highway 50 for about 80 miles in the Sacramento Valley and Lake Tahoe Basin before it and I-80 reopened.
In a Facebook post on Tuesday, the Washoe County Sheriff’s Office said the family had ignored lighted warning signs advising drivers not to use Dog Valley-Henness Pass Roads.
“However, the family’s GPS won the battle over which technology to listen to,” the sheriff’s office said in a Facebook post Tuesday, adding that the family had been saved.
It was not clear which GPS application the family had used.
In a public warning last week, the Washoe County Sheriff’s Office announced that drivers have often taken the same detour while using GPS. According to the sheriff, emergency helpers were called to 11 rescues from November 2020 to last February.
Raquel Borrayo, a spokeswoman for Caltrans, California’s Department of Transportation, said in an email Wednesday the agency was trying to reinforce that over-reliance on GPS apps could be risky.
“When people try to use map apps like Waze or Google Maps to avoid motorway closures, they can sometimes find themselves in very precarious and dangerous situations, with unploughed roads / dirt roads, lots of snow and no cell phone service,” said Borrayo. “We always urge people to stay on highways and find alternative routes that way rather than on country roads. We also recommend that people just stop and wait until the autobahn or autobahn block has been lifted. “
During this week’s storm, several people posted screenshots of Google Maps and Waze driving directions on Twitter that took users to Henness Pass Road, which the Sierra County Historical Society describes as a remote and winding mountain road that reaches an altitude of 2,920 feet. The road, a primary emigrant trail from Virginia City, Nevada, is “omitted from many maps,” according to a description on the Historical Society website.
Donner Pass, named for the doomed pioneering snow-covered family, some of whom resorted to cannibalism in the 1840s, is about 64 miles from the diversion.
A Waze spokeswoman said in an email on Thursday that the company was committed to helping drivers navigate efficiently and safely.
“Given this week’s blizzard and changing weather conditions, the Waze Community map editors continue to keep our maps updated with the latest real-time route information,” said spokeswoman Caroline Bourdeau. “We encourage drivers to be careful and to remain vigilant in traffic.”
Waze has a filter that allows drivers to avoid unpaved roads.
Crystal A. Kolden, geographer and disaster scientist who teaches at the University of California at Merced, said she couldn’t believe it when she saw that Google Maps had suggested the Henness Pass and other back country roads for motorists, the alternatives to the I- 80 searched.
“They are hardly drivable in summer,” said Professor Kolden on Wednesday. “How reliably do these companies have an ethical responsibility?”
Professor Kolden, 44, who was at her home in the Sierra foothills near Sonora, California during the storm, criticized Google Maps on Twitter. Some commentators poked fun at her post, saying that drivers should take responsibility for monitoring conditions and that she sounded like a millennial driving a Prius.
“Blaming vulnerable people for taking the wrong path is the same as blaming some of these poor vulnerable people who drowned in their basement apartments in New York City not so long ago,” she said in an interview, referencing referring to the deadly floods in September.
On Wednesday, Google Maps showed red dots with lines in them on the street that Ms. Becktold had taken on her detour on Monday. The road closure warnings were not there two days earlier, she said.
“It wasn’t like we were just romping around looking for a day in the snow,” said Ms. Becktold.
Ms. Becktold said she had no choice but to return to Berkeley when she had covered about 150 miles on the 200-mile journey. Her cousin, who had tried to reach her sick brother in Reno, eventually flew from San Francisco to Reno – via Los Angeles, she said.
“It seems kind of silly these days,” she said, “that there can’t be any clearer information online that these streets are closed.”