WASHINGTON — Embedded in any unfamiliar road are innocent questions that can shatter the harmony between drivers and passengers.
"Are we lost?" is one of them.
"Do we turn here?" is another.
And the old standby: "Why don't we just ask someone?"
That couples argue over directions is nothing new. What's new is that electronic navigation systems are squelching those arguments as effectively as air conditioners beat heat. And the systems' surging sales have everyone from marketers to psychologists focusing on the skirmishes of lost couples.
Garmin, for example, the dominant U.S. maker of navigation devices, based in Olathe, Kan., uses a "save the marriage" theme in its advertising.
(She: "We're lost." He: "I'm not lost; you're lost.")
The auto marketing-research firm J.D. Power and Associates, in a survey last year of 14,103 navigation-system users, found that nearly three-quarters of respondents considered them effective stress relievers.
The survey didn't explore what stresses they relieved, said Mike Marshall, J.D. Power's director for emerging automotive technologies, based in Troy, Mich. But participants in focus groups that Marshall has conducted often bring up arguments over directions, he said.
Carolyn McIntosh of Newark, Del., an elementary school teacher who's recovering from 33 years of navigating for her husband, Frank, knows the drill.
"I say, `Why don't we stop and ask?'
"He says, `It's just around the corner.'
"Twenty minutes later, we're still looking."
Two years ago, the couple bought a Chrysler 300 sedan with an Alpine navigation system, whose imperturbable female-voiced direction-giver they named Gladys.
Gladys sometimes makes mistakes that anger Frank, said Carolyn McIntosh, 56. But when Gladys errs, "at least the stupid person isn't in the car."
In interviews, lots of other women nodded and smiled tightly at her observation while their husbands mostly blushed or yukked like guilty boys.
"He rarely says my first name," Shari Twitero, 57, of Rapid City, S.D., said as her husband, George, a veterinarian, looked away. "But when he's lost, that's what I hear, `Shari,' in the flat tone you use when a child's doing something that could hurt him."
Asked what's going on then, George Twitero, 65, replied, "Someone isn't listening."
General Motors pioneered auto guidance with OnStar, a call-in emergency aid and diagnostic service whose operators also provided directions. It was first offered in 1997 Cadillacs.
Factory-installed, aftermarket or portable navigation systems now guide about 15 percent of U.S. and Western European vehicles, according to an analysis posted this month by Soleil Securities Corp. Soleil analyst Peter Friedland predicts that they'll be in 47 percent of all vehicles in use in four years.
The market is "very, very hot" among car rental companies, said Neil Abrams, a leading consultant to such firms. That's partly because so many renters are driving in unfamiliar places. Moreover, according to Abrams, the $9 to $11 a day that rental car companies charge for navigation systems "makes them more money than renting the car."
Compared with psychotherapy, that's a small price to pay for domestic tranquillity. Why it works so well goes back to an insight by linguist Deborah Tannen that's also the punch line of a joke she tells:
Question: Why does it take 10 million sperm to fertilize an egg?
Answer: Guys don't like to ask for directions.
Tannen, in her 1999 bestseller, "You Just Don't Understand," went on to say that men think they lose status when they ask for help. Women, on the other hand, whose conversational styles are more cooperative, think that asking for directions is a no-brainer.
Gerald Goodman, a psychologist at University of California at Los Angeles, takes a more masculine view of the situation.
A drive with a partner, Goodman said, holds a promise of intimacy or at least undistracted togetherness. Males also gain a sense of command when they drive.
"But when you're in a strange place and coping," said Goodman, "you're relying on her with the map in her hand. You're vulnerable. You need her. You're helpless without her - and guys don't like to be dependent.
"If I'm vulnerable and you screw me over, it's a micro-betrayal."
"You end up saying to yourself, `This is something that's supposed to be pleasant, right? Now look at it,'" he said.
Psychologist Bonnie Jacobson, a couples therapist and the author of the 1995 book "If Only You Would Listen," reads the situation differently. She thinks, for openers, that driving in unfamiliar places is more psychologically treacherous than it looks.
Decisions about directions are pass/fail and they have to be made fast, she noted. There's often an expected arrival time too. Navigating under these pressures can feel like a test, Jacobson added, "and testing is not something that a loving partner does."
Enter the electronic navigation system, an egoless know-it-all.
"It's like heaven on earth when someone gives us the answers," Jacobson said. "It speaks to the very young version of our selves, when parents told us right from wrong and what to do. ... It's mother in the seat, answering our appeal to help us out and tell us what to do so we can just relax."