Don’t blame Google maps for Kim’s death

by Mathew on December 6, 2006 · 34 comments

Obviously, the death of CNet editor James Kim — who had spent days trying to find help for his family, stranded in deep snow in a remote valley in Oregon — is a tragedy. But it shouldn’t be blamed on the use of Google Maps. I’ve seen a few sites where that issue has been raised, including the Lost Remote blog and a Wired blog.

This is apparently based on the fact that the Kims took a forest-service road through the Oregon wilderness — called Bear Camp road — that is not plowed or maintained in the winter, took a wrong turn and got lost. According to a local news report, authorities speculated that the Kims might have used Google Maps, since both Yahoo Maps and MapQuest suggest other routes but Google recommends Bear Camp road.


On the Lost Remote blog, one commenter even asks whether a mapping service can be found legally responsible for leading people astray. A CNN story, however, notes that even some printed maps don’t specify that the Bear Camp route is not suitable for winter driving. According to the story, the 2005-2007 state highway map has a warning in red print that says “This route closed in winter,” but a Rand-McNally map doesn’t.

State troopers said the family had been using a printed map, but it wasn’t clear which one. This story says someone warned the Kims that the road was not maintained in winter (Shelley has also written about it). The bottom line is that the Kims could easily have found themselves where they were without being lured there by an online map. Whenever a tragedy occurs, the tendency is to want to find someone to blame, but Google is the wrong target.


More info on the mapping issue can be found here, here and here (thanks to Mike Pegg of Google Maps Mania for those links). And please read the comments here for some other perspectives and clarification. And according to this story, while the surviving members of the family were rescued by a helicopter hired by the family, they were first spotted by a recreational helicopter pilot who knows the area well.

Update 2:

James Kim’s father Spencer Kim has written an op-ed piece for the Washington Post about his son’s death and the problems that led up to it — from road warning signs being removed and gates left unlocked to media helicopters disrupting the search.

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  • Dominic Jones

    Not that I see why this matters, but for the sake of accuracy, this is from the Oregon State Police “flash” website in regards to what map they were using:

    “Clarification: Wilsonville Chamber of Commerce – information provided earlier of a tip that a person at the chamber of commerce building provided a map and recommended travel routes has been determined to not be credible. Interviews with Kati Kim revealed they chose this route after looking at a State of Oregon map.”

  • Mathew Ingram

    Thanks for that, Dominic.

  • John Furrier

    i wonder if the gps software in cars have the same issue. Clearly an issue on online maps to have all the local information. I wonder if James had a verizon or sprint wireless pc card. I have my notebook with my verizon card all the time.

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  • Josh

    Who the hell would jump to the conclusion that because a tool was used to help make a decision that somehow the tool is to blame for the outcome of the decision? It’s not the maps fault. Why not blame the auto manufacturer for not providing survival kits and a few weeks’ rations with every SUV? They do suggest in their advertising that we can decide to use their products to access remote areas if we want. The real question is: why didn’t the Oregonian agency responsible for the road warn the public that the road was possibly dangerous? If it was in fact a private logging road, then why didn’t the owners close access to the road? Somebody out there is legally responsible for the maintenance of the road and this group is also the one responsible to the people that use the road. Either fair warning or proper maintenance could have saved that man’s life. The cause of the death was the man’s lack of awareness of the situation he was about to put himself in at the time that he entered the roadway; not hours or days beforehand when he was planning his trip.

  • John Furrier

    Josh: i agree with you … there is no way Google is to blame.

  • Mathew Ingram

    Good points, Josh — although as far as I’ve been able to gather, the road is marked in several places with signs that say it is hazardous in winter.

  • Josh

    Then the net question is: was the warning adequate? Obviously this, by all accounts, intelligent man didn’t think he was putting is family at risk when he enter the roadway.

  • Mathew Ingram

    It’s not clear to me from the way some of the stories have been written (and my limited understanding of the area) whether he would have seen the signs or not, or how many of them — and he also reportedly took a wrong turn at some point along the way, which complicates things. In the end, he took a risk and perhaps made some bad decisions, and likely had some bad luck as well, and it ended tragically. There isn’t always someone to blame in such cases. Sometimes, bad things just happen.

  • Josh

    Matt, I agree whole heartedly. We live on a contentious continent don’t we?

  • Dominic Jones

    It would do the mainstream media to take a long hard look at their coverage of this story. As your post demonstrates, there was a lot of inaccurate reporting. There still is. AP is shockingly bad. SF Chronicle was good among the mainstream media. TV just sucked.

    Some of the best coverage came from local journalists. This piece by a local reporter in the area is the only one to provide some insight into why James Kim went down that impossible Big Windy Creek drainage.

    “Jones [local helicopter SAR pilot] said Kim apparently walked along the road for four or five miles. Then, his tracks crossed paths with a big black bear headed downhill across the road. Jones speculated that Kim headed down the steep ravine to avoid the animal, which appears to have followed him.”

    A tip for the media, don’t sit on you ass waiting for the next news conference. Get out into town and talk to people and then ask for clarification at the official news conferences.

    I also found that some of the local bloggers were the best sources for where to go for credible coverage. Joe Duck in particular did some good pulling together of resources.

    The biggest risk to mainstream media is itself.

  • Mathew Ingram

    An excellent point, Dominic. I found blogs and local media the best as well — which probably isn’t that surprising, since they know the area.

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  • Dominic Jones

    In regards to AP, I should clarify that the problem seems to be a copy editing one. Someone seems to have been adding copy from the initial stories to the new information that came in from the reporter in the field. Some of the old information was inaccurate and was not updated.

    I’m giving the reporter the benefit of the doubt because he worked damned hard and filed a lot of copy under pressure. His best piece was when he drove the route the Kim’s took and reported how many warning signs they might have seen. Of course, the weather conditions were different when he did it and they did. Still, it was a good example of getting off your butt and doing some sleuthing.

    It’s easy being an armchair critic, so I don’t want to be too judgmental of individual reporters.

  • John

    My comments are in no way intended to disrepsect the famiies involved as this is a tragedy. I do however find the reporting and many comments quite unfair to various mapping companies. To even hint that maps are even remotely involved in causing this tragedy is absolutely insan and is a sign of desparate, irresponsible reporting. I also think it shows tremendous disrespect for Mr. Kim.

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  • Alan

    This is a tragedy but I see online maps as a travel aid and I use them the same way as James certainly did. Knowing that these maps are covering huge territory and represent massive amounts of data I would not trust my life based on what Google Maps show. I agree with many others when I say that Google is not to blame here.

  • Mike

    My heart goes out to the Kim family.
    I live in Oregon and I like nothing better than a good backroad to experience nature. When I first heard this story I was wondering if a gps unit had led them astray. Now it’s a paper map. I use the Oregon Atlas and Gazetteer, it has elevation and lists most if not all BLM roads, this is a must for backcountry roads, most gas station maps ignore BLM roads and logging trails. That being said roads in Oregon that are not maintained during winter are clearly marked with signs, however once you are past it signage may be spotty at best. I can only say please pay attention to signs and heed warnings about mountain roads and passes, Oregon is beautiful but heavily wooded in many areas with heavy snowfall in the upper elevations, if you travel any passes in Oregon, even highways, pack blankets food and water for the unexpected. I just checked my Gaz, and it doesn’t note the road as closed, but it does show the location of the Bear creek campsite, just a few miles from where they were stranded.

  • Mike

    My bad, I dbl checked and the Black Bar isn’t listed however, there is a Campsite and an airstrip very very close to the cars location. With a paper map of any kind on those logging roads it is extremely confusing if you don’t know where you are at a given moment you would be very lost, lattitude and longitude would be needed to pinpoint ones location to make any map usefull.

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  • HelenJHowell

    To the people of these two groups: those with Best snow blower, no wonder they do not fall into Para. Here are some tips to enjoy the white stuff again.

  • HelenJHowell

    To the people of these two groups: those with Best snow blower, no wonder they do not fall into Para. Here are some tips to enjoy the white stuff again.

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