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Study: Dashboard Typeface Readability Can Prevent Accidents

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Comparison of typefaces used in AgeLab study

Comparison of typefaces used in the MIT’s AgeLab study.

New research by the AgeLab at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in conjunction with Monotype Imaging, a global typeface design company, finds that the design of the fonts that appear on electronic displays on car dashboards can actually make the difference between a driver crashing a vehicle or not. Monotype’s fonts are used in Ford vehicles, Kindles and Nooks, and Garmin navigation systems, among other products, Jayne O’Donnell writes for USA TODAY.

In a PopSci article by Emily Badger, David Gould, monotype’s director of product marketing, said: “From our perspective, we’re absolutely not promoting more text in the car. But whatever text is there should be as optimal as possible.”

Badger points out the scope of the problem:

You’ve probably got in your car today a series of built-in LCD screens — complimented by your Garmin, your iPhone and your passenger’s Android — all telling you where you might dine tonight, how to get there and what your gas mileage will be. This mean that our cars are increasingly filling with text. And, of course, there’s only one way to process it: by taking our eyes off the road.

Because not all typefaces are equally easy to read, the research team tested two typefaces in simulated driving scenarios, in which they asked 82 participants, including both men and women ranging from the ages of 35 to 75, to interact with dashboard menus on a 7-inch LCD touchscreen as an eye-tracking camera monitored them, Badger reports. The test measured the time a driver spent glancing at the screen while “driving,” and found that in the studies, which involved two different screen brightness levels, the men needed 10.6% less time to read the “humanist” typeface called “Frutiger” than the “square grotesque” one called Eurostile. O’Donnell writes that the difference in “glance time” represents about 50 feet in distance when a driver is traveling at highway speed, according to Gould.

As compared with the grotesque typeface, the letters in the humanist typeface contain open shapes, Badger notes. For example, the letter “c” will not look like an “o” when it is in tiny type. A humanist typeface’s letters are more clearly spaced apart from each other, and their forms are distinct, Badger points out, with the “g” and the “9” and the capital letter “O” and the number “0” looking clearly different from each other.

The study did not say why women drivers in the test had no trouble reading either typeface. Badger writes: “‘The gender issues here are a fluke of psychology,’ [MIT AgeLab research scientist Bryan] Reimer posits, and they might relate to the different ways that women process information or interact with this type of technology.”

The difference in the time it takes a male driver to read certain typefaces like a square grotesque one could mean the difference between driving safely and getting into an accident.

Badger writes:

‘In the vehicle, fractions of seconds are the difference between avoiding accidents and colliding with things,’ Reimer says. At 65 miles per hour, you cover 95 feet every second in a car. ‘In most other environments that we think of, the safety benefit from fractions of a second doesn’t have the consequences it does in a vehicle. Even in aviation, encroachments between planes are measured in minutes, not seconds.’

O’Donnell writes that according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), of the nearly 900,000 crashes that involved distracted driving reported to police in 2010, 26,000 involved drivers adjusting devices or controls in a car, and distracted driving crashes killed about 3,000 people last year.

The appearance of text on dashboard screens is increasing, as O’Donnell writes:

Chevrolet’s 2013 Sonic and Spark small cars have an app called GoGo that can show smartphones’ navigation systems on the cars’ touchscreens. Starting next year, Mercedes-Benz says it will integrate smartphones — including those by Nokia, HTC and Samsung — into the car through the MirrorLink open standard. […]

Some luxury automakers are allowing drivers to read snippets of e-mails, texts and social media on dashboard displays. That’s raised concerns among some safety experts, although many argue it’s safer than when drivers read them on cell phones.

O’Donnell reports that NHTSA’s proposed guidelines require all dashboard functions to be “possible” with one or more two-second glances away from the road. NHTSA spokeswoman Lynda Tran told O’Donnell that although the agency itself is not studying fonts, “Ultimately, the agency welcomes any innovation that might reduce the amount of time a driver’s attention is diverted from the roadway.”

Reimer and Gould have brought their research findings to Detroit to share them with car makers, Badger reports, saying their findings could equally be applied to cell phone and other devices. She points out that car makers will need to find a balance between typeface legibility — and driving safety — and their desire to have each car’s typeface reflect that car’s brand.

Here is a video about the AgeLab study:


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