The fonts used on in-car devices could be distracting you, too

Electronic gadgets are everywhere — even in our cars. While we may love the convenience, a recent study set out to study one factor in these devices and whether it had an impact on our safety — the font or typeface used to communicate the information we receive.

Fonts and typefaces are an interesting area of study. Instinctively, we know we like some over others. Consumer brands spend a great amount of time looking at typefaces and logos to ensure they communicate the "feelings" associated with the brand. But just because we may like one better or it communicates a feeling, does that mean our brains process them in the same way?

It turns out that fonts are processed differently in our brains, and when that relates to those handy gadgets in our cars, it can have safety consequences.

MIT Age Lab teamed up with the New England University Transportation Center and Monotype Imaging to find out how much distraction was involved when a driver glances at an in-dash device. They conducted experiments with 82 people between the ages of 36 and 75, driving in a computer simulation where in-car multimedia displays showed everyday information such addresses and search menus. The displays used two different style typefaces: Eurostile (a "square grotesque" style) and Frutiger (a "humanist typeface).

The results? On average, the men spent 10.6% looking at screens that used Eurostyle/grotesque type over the ones with Frutiger/humanist. The difference was two-fifths of a second; to put that in context, that's about the length of time it takes for a car traveling at highway speeds to travel 50 feet. In women the grotesque demanded less than a tenth of a second more than the humanist.


The font diagram above gives some insight to why different typefaces are quicker to read. For most people, the Frutiger/humanist characters are generally easier to read because they are more clearly defined — with more open shapes, more spacing between the words and more clearly defined shapes.

We all know why we should care about how much we are distracted by our in-car gadgets. In a 2009 report, the National Highway Transportation Administration estimated 18% of injury crashes were reported to have involved distracted driving. As the years have passed and in-car gadgets and amenities have multiplied, those numbers are likely to have become higher.

The recent MIT/Monotype study shed some light on one way to ease distraction caused by users trying to read their devices: change the font. Remember how brands believe fonts are important in how people perceive their brands? It turns out that is a factor here. Steve Matteson of Monotype explains to Co.Exist:

"Eurostile is actually very popular in automotive today — it conveys power and energy. However, the letterforms are mechanically rigid and compact, tightly spaced, and in some cases are nearly indistinguishable from each other."

The team that worked on this study hopes the results show how a change in typeface could be an important new safety measure, one that hopefully would be embraced by automakers and regulators. It's a change that could help get our eyes back on the road more quickly (you know, until cars just drive themselves).

MIT Age Lab, via FastCoExist

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