On The Road, A More Legible Typeface Could Save Your Life

When you get into a modern car today, you’re hounded by a series of bright and distracting screens. The driver has to deal with an electronic display displaying gas mileage, a Garmin gps, their smartphone, and an in-dash radio system. Each one of these demands the driver’s precious attention, all at the expense of looking at the road. Researchers at MIT AgeLab and Monotype teamed up to find out if there was a way to make all the present distractions less distracting. To test, they held one question in mind: are some typefaces easier to read on in-vehicle displays while driving?

The people at Monotype believed that was simple answer to this is yes. And to go one step beyond, they believed that a humanist style typeface would have considerable benefits in readability compared to square grotesque type commonly used by auto manufacturers.

The top and bottom row of the diagram made by MIT AgeLab show the difference between the two styles of type. The humanist style is more legible due to “open space inside the letterforms to prevent from blurring their shapes, ample space between the letterforms to prevent them from clashing or blurring together, highly distinguishable shapes to prevent ‘at a glance’ ambiguity, and varied horizontal proportions to add distinguishing characteristics,” according to researches. The characters in the square grotesque type can easily be confused for one another, e.g. at small sizes the C and the O will look alike and the g and 9 will take on similar form. The humanist style ameliorates these problems.

To gather data, 42 people, evenly split by gender and between the ages 36 and 75, were tested. The participants were put into a simulator VW bug and drove around while interacting with a 7 inch navigation display. AgeLab created a system of cameras that would monitor the participant’s eye movement and calculate the amount of time their eyes spent looking away from the road. They were tested with the two different type styles at two different brightness levels.

The study found that in the selection of male participants, the glance time was reduced by about 12 percent when the display was switched from a square grotesque type to a humanist one. For female participants, the difference was nearly negligible—a conclusion which further research will have to help explain. This 12 percent may seem insignificant as it only represents a little under a second, but in that amount of time a car traveling on a US highway will move between 50 and 80 feet. 50 feet of movement without the driver looking at the road can be the difference between safety and collision, life or death.

The researchers were surprised by the double digit results. So they did the study again with a different group of test subjects and found a reduction in glance time in males of around 10.2 percent.

Monotype has already brought their findings to different automakers and parts of government in hope of more legible displays across all vehicles in the future. When it comes to understanding written language quickly, typography plays an essential role.


MIT Age Lab

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