Couple Had ‘Terrifying’ Drive Thanks to GPS Instructions

Front Page / Feb. 25, 2010 11:57am EST

By John Freitag

Once again, a GPS unit has led an unsuspecting driver to attempt to drive an unmaintained road in Strafford, this time with “terrifying” results.

In a letter to the Valley News published this past Saturday, Bob Fieldsteel describes a "terrifying" drive over the ice and snow for himself and his wife, both over 85 years in age.

He wrote, "There was no place to turn around and we realized that we were in trouble when we came to a stream where the trail collapsed. I left my wife in the car and started to walk back for help. It was a perilous journey for me. Cell phones don’t work in forests.

"After slipping and sliding for about two miles, I saw two women and a dog. They told me that I was on a snowmobile track and offered to get help. Thanks to them and another woman, we were rescued hours later. We all dragged downed trees from the forest to fill in the collapsed trail. We drove over the ice and made it to Route 132."

Fieldsteel was not the only person to make the mistake of trying to take the Pennock Road that shows up on GPS as the best route from parts of Strafford to Thetford. Earlier in the winter, Keith Fifield had use his tractor to pull a vehicle that had gotten mired to its axles trying to go over the Pennock Road from the Miller Pond side of Strafford. While this year’s "snowless" winter has allowed for mistakes to be more easily made, problems with GPS on this and another road in town that are in terrible shape were not unforeseen.  

Why Class 3?

Last year at a public meeting sponsored by the Planning Commission and Strafford Selectboard about roads, concerns were raised that sections of two town roads listed as being Class 3 highways, which need to be maintained for cars to be able to travel on, are now pretty much impassable and the classification needed to be changed to reflect their actual condition. It was mentioned that with new GPS navigation systems these roads could appear as the best routes for getting from point A to point B.

The two roads in question were the Carpenter Hill road section from the Cross Road to the cut off road to Dan Deneen’s, and the Pennock Road from the top of the hill in Strafford to the Podunk Wildlife management access.

The problem with this part of Carpenter Hill Road is that the roadbed is lower than the sides of the road, and in wet years like last year, impassable by even four-wheel drive vehicles, because of the mud. Problems on the Pennock Road have more to do with being able to negotiate over ledges that now constitute roadbed. It was on the Pennock Road that last year a state trooper reportedly got into problems while try to get to a call in Thetford.

At their February 10 meeting, the deadline for the Strafford Selectboard to annually recertify highway mileage for the state highway map, questions were again raised as to whether classifying these impassable sections of road as Class 3 highways was appropriate. The board, noting that road foreman Jon Mackinnon had put up "road closed" signs for the Pennock Road, decided to leave the highway classifications the same as in previous years. 

Complex Issue

An email sent February 20 to the Herald’s Strafford correspondent by selectboard chair Steve Willbanks, highlighted the complexity of the issue. He wrote, "I agree that portions of Pennock and Carpenter Hill roads should be Class 4, but am not sure how easy that will be to accomplish.

"In the meantime, I think posting signs is a reasonable thing to do, especially when there isn’t much snow. If it isn’t plowed, people aren’t as likely to drive on it. According to Jonathan Croft, the VTrans mapping guy, there is a procedure whereby a town can decide not to plow a portion of a Class 3 road. I will look into it."

Willbanks continued, "As to incurring liability, ‘sovereign immunity,’ which generally protects towns from lawsuits, applies here. People should take reasonable precautions on back roads, just as they should when driving in bad weather. These GPS units are an additional headache, because as Jonathan Croft told me, they don’t distinguish between Class 3, Class 4 or even town trails.

"Again, according to Croft, the most likely outcome if VTrans concludes that portions of those roads are not up to Class 3 standards is that they will decide they are functionally Class 4 roads and reduce our gas tax revenue accordingly. Since there are about three miles of roads involved, it could mean a loss of roughly $ 4,500 in revenue.

"I am not sure if it is to anybody’s advantage to open these roads up to year-round use either. The cost could easily be in the $30,000 to $40,000 range just to upgrade them."

Willbanks went on to explain that another problem is that landowners along the affected route often resist change to classification because it affects the care given the road that passes along their land.

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