Smoother dashboard typefaces might enhance driver safety: 'Humanist' lettering style is easier for driver, study says

Oct 05, 2012 by Peter Dizikes
Credit: Thundersky

Typeface aficionados perceive major differences among fonts that look broadly similar to the rest of us. Now an MIT study suggests that when it comes to the typefaces used on auto dashboards, such differences might not be just an aesthetic matter, but a vital safety matter.

In recent tests, researchers with MIT's AgeLab have found that dashboard displays using the more open and differentiated lettering found in the "humanist" family of typefaces are easier for people to read quickly than displays using the more uniform and tightly spaced letters of the "square grotesque" style. Male drivers, in particular, can process messages in humanist lettering about 10 percent faster, on average.

That might not sound like a lot, but under highway conditions automobiles will cover about 50 feet in the time it takes drivers to process the less user-friendly messages. In some , that could be the difference between an accident and a near miss on the road.

"We're not advocates of putting more information in front of the driver," says Bryan Reimer, a research scientist at MIT's AgeLab, and the lead author of an upcoming paper on the findings. Instead, Reimer says, the issue is, "How do we present the information that we do need in front of the driver in the most effective manner possible?"

Credit: Monotype Imaging

Bars, tails, curves and spaces

To conduct the study, the researchers performed two separate tests on drivers between 36 and 74 years of age. Subjects behind the of the simulator in MIT's AgeLab were given displays using the two contrasting typefaces. In the first test, men took about 12 percent longer to process messages appearing in the square grotesque style, while there was little difference in the time it took for women to react to the messages. In the second test, in which only the brightness of the screen was changed, men took 9 percent longer to process displays in square grotesque, and women took 3 percent longer.

"You have two consistent studies telling you the same thing," Reimer says. He suggests that the humanist style is easier to read quickly for multiple reasons: The narrower shape of the characters leads to greater relative spacing between them, making individual letters easier to distinguish. Also, the varying heights of the letters, and the distinctive tails and bars extending above and below the bulk of the character shape, "presents information in a manner that can be more quickly decoded" by drivers, Reimer adds.

The humanist style encompasses a variety of typefaces, such as Clearview, Veranda and Frutiger, the typeface used in the study. Grotesque include Franklin Gothic, Helvetica and Eurostile, which was the other typeface tested. "I'm not saying we need one typeface in the car, but the characteristics of one type style may be far superior to others for this application," Reimer says, adding: "What's optimal for a piece of paper or e-reader may not be optimal in a glance-based environment in the car. Immersive reading is far different than glancing at information for a few seconds."

Part of the impetus for the study, Reimer explains, was to examine driver distraction in terms of the standard features of every car. While much public discussion about driver distraction concerns behind-the-wheel activities such as talking on cellphones or texting, dashboard displays are integral to every vehicle. The growth of in-car navigation systems, and the replacement of gauges with dashboard displays, may only increase the time drivers spend glancing at text while moving.

The authors of the paper view their research as an initial finding that may spur additional studies in the same vein. That may include further analysis to see if the gender gap found in this study persists, and if so, what might explain it.

The research project fits into the broader concerns that AgeLab researchers have about the dissemination of consumer information at a time when the population as a whole is aging, adds Joseph F. Coughlin, director of the MIT AgeLab. "Font and presentation of information is going to become more critical in all domains of life," Coughlin says.

Many of those older people are still driving. So for now, regarding cars, Reimer says, AgeLab researchers will continue to look for ways to optimize the devices already in automobiles. "How do we begin to be more effective at designing the vehicle?" he asks. "How do we look more deeply at the relationship between technology and the driver?"

Explore further: Report: FBI's anthrax investigation was flawed

Related Stories

CQ Researcher examines distracted driving

May 18, 2012

More than 5,000 people die each year in vehicle crashes caused by distracted driving, many who were texting and talking on cellphones behind the wheel, according to the May 4 issue of CQ Researcher (published by CQ Press, ...

Curb the car dashboard technology, government asks

Feb 16, 2012

(AP) -- Auto dashboards are becoming an arcade of text messages, GPS images, phone calls and web surfing, the government says, and it's asking carmakers to curb those distractions when vehicles are moving.

Recommended for you

Report: FBI's anthrax investigation was flawed

Dec 19, 2014

The FBI used flawed scientific methods to investigate the 2001 anthrax attacks that killed five people and sickened 17 others, federal auditors said Friday in a report sure to fuel skepticism over the FBI's ...

Study reveals mature motorists worse at texting and driving

Dec 18, 2014

A Wayne State University interdisciplinary research team in the Eugene Applebaum College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences has made a surprising discovery: older, more mature motorists—who typically are better drivers in ...

Napster co-founder to invest in allergy research

Dec 17, 2014

(AP)—Napster co-founder Sean Parker missed most of his final year in high school and has ended up in the emergency room countless times because of his deadly allergy to nuts, shellfish and other foods.

LA mayor plans 7,000 police body cameras in 2015

Dec 16, 2014

Mayor Eric Garcetti announced a plan Tuesday to equip 7,000 Los Angeles police officers with on-body cameras by next summer, making LA's police department the nation's largest law enforcement agency to move ...

User comments : 3

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

tadchem
not rated yet Oct 05, 2012
Typeface designers often suffer from the same distractions as the rest of us in that any perturbation of or deviation from the primary objective (in this case, legibility) degrades the mission performance. In military science, any non-strategic or non-tactical conditions (i.e. 'rules of engagement', treaty compliance, political considerations) placed on the Mission - to defeat the enemy - jeopardizes that mission. Similarly, specified demands for energy production (i.e. renewable) increase the expense to the consumer.
Keep your eyes on the prize!
antialias_physorg
not rated yet Oct 05, 2012
Similarly, specified demands for energy production (i.e. renewable) increase the expense to the consumer.
Keep your eyes on the prize!

Yep. If you think money is the prize why anone is doing it you're looking the wrong way.
Epsillon
not rated yet Oct 05, 2012
Just as a note, Helvetica is neo-grotesque, not grotesque.

Anyways, always good to see smart design practices put to good use.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.