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GPS Traffic Updates – Are They Useful?

Published: June 20, 2012

GPS traffic software is designed to keep you up to date on traffic congestion and accidents on your route. The benefits of such a software are obvious – they allow you to avoid getting stuck in traffic when you have somewhere to be. It can also help you find the shortest route to your destination to save on gas costs.

At least, that's the theory – but how well do these traffic update programs work in practice? We decided to answer that question for ourselves, looking at some of the leading providers in the market and comparing functionality, effectiveness, and pricing.

How Traffic Updates Work

Using a GPS device to pinpoint your location or get directions is one thing – having real-time traffic updates is a different story. Obviously, the timing of the device you use will be crucial, as information that is even a few minutes out-of-date could set you on the wrong course and leave you stuck in a jam you can't afford to be in.

Traffic update providers get their data from a handful of aggregation services, which in turn get their traffic data from hardware such as fiber optic cables on roads and highways. Police and Department of Transportation employees also collect real-time data which is fed into aggregators. So the usefulness of any given traffic update software will be determined by a few big factors, in particular the aggregation service being used and the hardware available in the area you're trying to get updates for.

If you want more details on how data is collected and distributed, this article provides an in-depth breakdown: How Real-Time Traffic GPS Works

GPS Traffic

Popular GPS Traffic Applications

The Garmin nüvi series of devices are amongst the most highly recommended if having high quality traffic updates is a top priority. The Garmin nüvi Lifetime Maps and Traffic application provides accurate, up-to-the-minute updates for traffic conditions in all major urban areas.

Google Navigation is another option compatible with many devices – see more information here: Google Maps Navigation. Because this app can be installed on most smart phones, it makes buying an in-car GPS device like a Garmin nüvi unnecessary if you don't already own one. This application is constantly being updated with new features and offers some promising advanced functionality for the near future. It gives you different view options such as Street View and Satellite View, as well as making it simple to get an idea of traffic congestion and the best alternative routes.

However, many users have found problems with inaccuracies on Google maps – out of date information, or streets and buildings in positions other than where they appear on the map. Google Maps should do the trick as a quick-fix solution, but if you're in a position where every minute counts or you do regular long-distance travel, you may find this application doesn't quite cut it.

One interesting app called Waze Social GPS actually allows you to access data from other drivers in your area – it's a social network, like Twitter for traffic updates. While it's a novel idea, the real practical advantage of being linked to other drivers is questionable – the usefulness is proportional to how many other drivers in your area are also using the app.

For those in Australia, SUNA Traffic is probably your best option: http://www.sunatraffic.com.au/ .

So Is It Worth It?

The main priority for most people considering paying for GPS traffic updates is saving time – so the biggest consideration is how much time you lose each day stuck in traffic. Most commuters don't actually know exactly how much time they spend in traffic each week, so it may be worth recording some numbers to determine how long you spend sitting in jams.

If you're spending more than two hours per week stuck in traffic, chances are GPS traffic software can help you cut that number down so you can spend that time doing something more enjoyable or productive. If the benefits in terms of time and gas saved seem relatively minimal, then it might not be worth the cost of updates – however it's hard to put a price on eliminating the frustration and boredom of being stuck in a traffic jam. If you don't currently own a GPS device and you're still in doubt, the wise move is to start with Google Navigation and decide form there whether you're going to need something more advanced.

Browse all the other GPS articles and features.


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