MIT researchers driving

Why the typefaces in cars can cause crashes

Researchers are warning that the type of font used on car controls and the dashboard can affect the risk of having an accident.

A new study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) shows that small changes to in-vehicle technology, such as the typeface chosen for entertainment and an infotainment system, can have a significant effect driver distraction levels.

New cars are often equipped with a large number of buttons, knobs and dials to control entertainment and GPS map systems as well as on-screen displays of vehicle status and cabin options. The lettering and numbering on and around these controls is meant to allow at-a-glance observation – so a driver doesn’t have to look away from the road for long – but researchers say this is not always the case.

The latest study was a collaboration between MIT’s AgeLab and Monotype, a font designer responsible for some of the most commonly used typefaces.

A total of 82 volunteers aged between 36 and 75 took part in a driving simulation, and where asked to perform tasks on a display that mimicked a car’s navigation screen.

Participants’ eye movements were tracked to determine how long they looked away from the simulated road.

The MIT researchers compared a range of fonts - and found that even small differences in fonts could mean a loss in reaction time, with the car travelling for 50 feet before drivers could get their eyes back on the road. This could be the difference between a near accident and a serious rear-end shunt.

Researchers varied the display font on the navigation screen, first using Eurostile font, then switching it to Frutiger, a font that’s used on Swiss road signs.

Eurostile, known as a 'square grotesque' typeface, has small gaps between letters - and curled letters like 'C' having small openings.

Frutiger has wider spacings and openings.

A second study changed the font and the contrast of the screen. In both studies, the humanist font significantly reduced the amount of time participants glanced away from the road.

In addition men saw a 12.2 per cent improvement in 'glance' time when the font was changed to a clearer typeface, while women responded with the same reaction time across both fonts.

Bryan Reimer, one of the study’s lead researchers, said: “We keep talking about all the major issues in driver distraction — should this be allowed, should that be allowed.

“What we’re elegantly forgetting along the way is how to look at the simple building blocks that form good HMI (human machine interface) development in the vehicle.”

AgeLab’s Bruce Mehler said more research was needed to investigate how drivers reacted to fonts.

“We’d like to hope that people will see this as a starting point as opposed to the end of an answer,” he said.

The MIT researchers hope that the findings will be a factor for car makers when they start designing the interior of their next models.

Mehler said: “One of the real keys is that that content is constantly changing on your display.”

He said that with touch screens and LCD displays “legibility becomes much more of an issue than it ever was in the past.”

In the future, Mehler said that the font research could be part of a much larger discussion on reducing distraction.

“If we can gain 10 per cent improvement by changing certain font characteristics, maybe another five per cent from the background, another couple of percentages taking into account colour, we could add those all up and have a sizable affect.”

David Gould, director of product marketing at Monotyp, said: “Across both experiments, it's very notable that the two different testing conditions showed a lowering of visual demand of around 10.6 per cent among the men.

“This difference in glance time represents approximately 50 feet in distance when travelling at US highway speed.

“Although we've only scratched the surface and more typeface studies need to be done, we see this as a call to action for auto manufacturers, their suppliers and safety standards bodies to recognise that typeface style can represent a critical element of the driving experience.

“The human brain was developed around perception at daytime running speeds - not 70 miles per hour.”

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