Everyone knows that fonts help shape user experience. But that truth goes especially deep when it comes to the LCD screens ubiquitous in new cars. According to a recent study by MIT AgeLab and Monotype Imaging, different typefaces influence driver distraction by demanding more or less time to read. Each fraction of a second that drivers keep their eyes off the road increases the risk of the ultimate bummer for car users—a crash.
In the experiments, a group of 82 people between the ages of 36 and 75 drove in a computer simulation while reacting to an in-car multimedia display showing addresses, restaurant names, and search menus. The displays used two different typefaces: the "square grotesque" Eurostile and the "humanist" Frutiger. On average, the men spent 10.6% longer looking at the screens showing Eurostile than the ones showing Frutiger. The difference was two-fifths of a second, long enough for a car at highway speed to travel 50 feet. For the women, the grotesque typeface demanded less than a tenth of a second more than the humanist typeface.
So what made one typeface quicker to read than the other? In this diagram from their white paper, the researchers show how Frutiger characters (bottom) are more clearly defined and easier to identify than those that make up Eurostile (top). We’re not talking Zapf Dingbats here, but once you’re measuring fractions of a second, the researchers say, these details in legibility could account for the difference.
"Eurostile is actually very popular in automotive today—it conveys power and energy," says Steve Matteson, of Monotype. "However, the letterforms are mechanically rigid and compact, tightly spaced, and in some cases are nearly indistinguishable from each other." With 18% of crashes that cause injury in the United States linked to distraction and computers becoming more common in cars, the researchers say they hope manufacturers and regulators will give their study a careful read. "Text needs to be as easy to read as possible. Your eyes need to get back on the road very quickly for obvious reasons," says MIT AgeLab researcher Bryan Reimer.