These days, drivers count on mapping apps for more than getting from one place to another. The apps serve as in-car bulletin boards, alerting drivers in real time about their surroundings. Navigation apps such as Waze provide warnings for traffic jams, broken-down vehicles, roadway debris or even lurking police officers.
The accuracy of mapping data is becoming more important as driverless cars start taking to the road. It will be up to navigation apps to guide cars onto the safest routes and to warn passengers — who may not be paying attention — about potential hazards.
“The safer car in the future isn’t going to have a better bumper; it’s going to have better navigation,” said Eric Gundersen, chief executive of Mapbox, a digital map provider.
The Federal Railroad Administration has lobbied technology companies for 18 months to add alerts for grade crossings. The rail agency said it had contacted 11 technology companies, including Apple and Microsoft, to integrate its location data of grade crossings.
In this year’s lineup of GPS devices, Garmin included safety warnings for potential hazards like sharp turns and railroad crossings, the company said, although it does not use the federal rail location data.
Several months after the Oxnard crash, the railroad agency said Google had agreed to add audio and visual warnings to Google Maps, the world’s most popular mapping app, based on grade-crossing location data. But Google has not yet included that feature, even though it has updated the app more than two dozen times for the iPhone since then.
The National Transportation Safety Board said Apple and three other companies had also agreed to add crossing data, but the board was uncertain when the companies would do so.
A spokeswoman from Google said the company was aware of the safety board’s recommendation and was looking at ways to add safety features. Apple said it was working to add the rail data to its maps but would not elaborate on implementation specifics. Microsoft and MapQuest said they were also reviewing the data used in their maps.
In a speech on Sept. 15, Sarah E. Feinberg, administrator of the railroad agency, said many of the recent deaths at rail crossings were not from drivers trying to “beat the train” but were “situations where the driver lost situational awareness, or there weren’t sufficient protections in place to protect the vehicle or provide adequate warning to the driver.”
She chided technology companies for procrastinating on integrating data into mapping applications that “will save many lives.”
On Monday, Ms. Feinberg praised the safety board’s recommendation, saying she hoped it “will raise this to the top of technology companies’ priority lists.”
The N.T.S.B.’s recommendations are not binding, but the board can use them to pressure technology companies to take action. It can also try to persuade Congress to offer funds to provide incentives to the companies, said James E. Hall, a former chairman of the safety board.
The board has issued map-related safety recommendations in the past, urging utility companies to update their maps with accurate locations of abandoned gas lines.
Digital maps started replacing paper maps about a decade ago, when stand-alone GPS devices from companies like Garmin and TomTom became more affordable and car companies started offering built-in navigation systems. But the breakthrough came when Google and Apple added turn-by-turn directions into mapping apps on smartphones, putting the technology into millions of devices already in people’s pockets.
Globally, an estimated one billion people use a mapping app or service every week, according to the technology research firm Berg Insight.
In the Oxnard crash, the driver was using Google Maps in Spanish on a smartphone borrowed from his wife. Investigators believe the map was one of a number of factors, including driver fatigue.
Mr. Sanchez-Ramirez was on a 350-mile drive from his home in Yuma, Ariz. What was supposed to be a six-hour trip had stretched to 21 hours because his truck broke down along the way and he was involved in a minor crash. He came upon the rail crossing before sunrise, having not slept substantively in more than 24 hours, the safety board’s report said.
“The N.T.S.B. concludes that had the driver’s navigation application included information on the upcoming grade crossing, he would have been less likely to misinterpret the visual cues and mistakenly turn onto the railroad tracks,” the safety board wrote in its report.
At the time, the crossing had no grade separation, and there were no cones or markers warning drivers from turning onto the rails. Since 2008, there have been five accidents at that crossing, including one in 2010 when a confused driver turned onto the tracks and was struck by a train. The driver was injured, but there were no fatalities.
“It’s easy to understand how in the dark, a sleep-deprived driver unfamiliar with the area can turn at the wrong place if a navigation app says, ‘Turn here,’” said James McGillis, who lives near Oxnard, in Simi Valley, and has written extensively on his website about the crash.
The police found Mr. Sanchez-Ramirez a mile from his truck. He had abandoned it on the tracks with the headlights and hazard lights on and the driver’s door open. Ron Bamieh, Mr. Sanchez-Ramirez’s lawyer, said his client was trying to get help. Mr. Sanchez-Ramirez was charged in February of this year with vehicular manslaughter and is awaiting arraignment.
At some grade crossings, there are no gates or blinking lights to warn drivers of an oncoming train — just a crossing sign or a crossbuck, a white “X” marked with the words “railroad crossing.” Thomas F. Prendergast, chairman of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority in New York, said grade crossings could be especially dangerous because drivers often do not take the proper precautions, especially with all the other distractions in the car.
“Sometimes we want to distract while they are distracted,” Mr. Prendergast said, praising the safety board’s move. “That level of technology can be a game changer.”
The need for a recommendation speaks to the dependence some drivers feel toward navigation apps, choosing to follow directions from the app even in the face of contradictory information.
In February, after a rockslide closed Interstate 70 in Colorado, directions from Google Maps sent drivers over a mountain pass near Aspen as an alternative. But that road was closed for the winter.
A spokeswoman for the Colorado Department of Transportation, Amy Ford, said many drivers ignored road signs informing them that the road was closed and followed the apps instead. The most determined drivers became stranded and needed assistance from law enforcement.
“It’s become integral for many drivers,” said Jake Nelson, AAA’s director of traffic safety advocacy and research. “The risk is when we become over-reliant on these technologies.”