Warning to drivers: Your typeface may be endangering your life

New research shows different typefaces on in-dash devices can impact 'glance' time

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Drivers are constantly being warned about the dangers of distracted driving, particularly the practice of texting while behind the wheel.

But the risks inherent in drivers taking their eyes off the road goes beyond the actual use of in-vehicle devices. Even the typeface featured on some devices can worsen the distraction and increase the chances of an accident.

New joint research by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's AgeLab, the New England University Transportation Center and typeface vendor Monotype Imaging Holding Inc. concludes that certain typefaces are easier to read at a glance than others.

A white paper released Tuesday reports the results of two studies involving drivers ranging in age from 36 to 75. The drivers were required to "interact" with multi-line displays designed to model a text-rich automotive in-dash menu. Two typefaces were used: A "square grotesque" typeface called Eurostile that is commonly used today in many vehicle device displays, and a "humanist" style typeface, which some typographers suspected was easier to read for people forced to only glance at the text.

The typographers turned out to be right, based on the study results as described in the white paper:

Across the two studies, among men, a “humanist” typeface resulted in a 10.6% lower visual demand as measured by total glance time as compared to the “square grotesque” typeface. Total response time and number of glances required to complete a response showed similar patterns.

To put a meaningful number on this in the context of driving safety, one of the researchers said this "difference in glance time represents approximately 50 feet in distance when traveling at U.S. highway speed." Which could be the difference between a close call and an injury -- or worse.

For some reason, the "impact of different typeface style was either more modest or not apparent for women," the researchers wrote.

MIT's AgeLab says more research is in order (well, they are researchers), but one would hope the auto industry is taking notes. If using a different typeface can save lives, why not make the switch?

If you're wondering about what each of the typefaces used in the research looks like, you can deep-dive into typeface geekery in the white paper. You also can check out the video below.

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