Multiple news sources recently reported that elderly couple Helena (78) and Gerald (76) Butler survived a 6-day unexpected stay in a desolate area of Utah. The couple was intending to drive their rental car from Kanab, Utah to Lake Powell, and followed directions from their GPS onto a unpaved path with various rocks and drops. And even following their GPS, the couple got stuck after discovering they were on the wrong road. And as anyone who's been away from major highways in the southwest can attest, a remote canyon is clearly not the best place to seek a cell signal for assistance ...
The coverage by the Salt Lake Tribune included an image of how the couple placed the vehicle under a ledge (yet another mistake), where it would be effectively imperceptible by search and rescue helicopters. Yet we have to always appreciate those individuals who do the right thing; the motel in Kanab where the couple was staying reported the couple missing when they hadn't returned from their day trip to Lake Powell.
The Good News
The couple survived, if only because a rancher found Helena near the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Wonder how daunting a search and rescue effort would within the National Monument? It's clear that the Butlers were very fortunate, as the National Monument is described as a "Delaware-sized museum of sedimentary erosion" (the monument is 1.87 million acres) and really has no paved roads. In fact, the monument issues a "road report". A rental car is not designed to drive canyon trails (despite any directions given by a GPS system) and when you make a wrong turn on an already ill-advised route, the consequence could be dire.
This does not seem to be a place for rental cars.
What Can We Learn?
First, the proper route from Kanab, Utah to Lake Powell (Glen Canyon National Recreation Area) doesn't require off-roading through canyons and mountain passes. GPS navigation is a tool but -- like all other tools -- has to be used effectively. If GPS directs a traveler to a bridge that's closed, the traveler has to accept the bridge is closed. If GPS directs a traveler to a road that's unlabeled and impassible through a remote canyon, then the traveler should seek a paved alternative.
Secondly, we all have placed emergency kits (complete or partial) in our personal cars. Yet in a rental car on a multiple-hour drive in a fairly remote area of the United States, we likely ignore the same basic guidance. Obviously, we're not going to buy jumper cables for a rental car but a few extra bottles of water and basic snacks would be far preferable to drinking water from puddles. Our team members even stock extra waters when driving I-15 between Los Angeles and Las Vegas.
And finally, this is one situation where a precise rule-follower wouldn't have risked death. The major rental car companies all forbid the use of their vehicles off-road, so a driver making a choice to follow a non-road has immediately broken the contract with the rental car company. Perhaps the rental car companies in the region need to create a catchy phrase to prevent renters from driving off-road, similar to the National Weather Service's "Turn Around Don't Drown." AutoSlash would be willing to consult on that potentially life-saving initiative.
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