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Text size helps reduce driver distraction

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Text size and type font used in dashboard displays may be overlooked culprits in distracted driving.

Changing the typefaces on displays reduced the amount of time male drivers looked away from the road by nearly 11 per cent in two experiments, according to the study by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the New England University Transportation Center.

That difference in "glance time" represents about 15 metres in distance when travelling at highway speed, says David Gould of Monotype Imaging, which sponsored the study.

Despite increasing use of voice-activated controls in cars, "We know that text in cars is here to stay," said Bryan Reimer, one of the study's authors and a research scientist at MIT's AgeLab, whose studies include the impact of vehicle technologies on driver behaviour.

"Given this reality, text needs to be as easy to read as possible."

Of the nearly 900,000 crashes involving distracted driving reported to police in 2010, 26,000 involved adjusting devices or controls in a car, said the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. About 3,000 people were killed in distracted-driving crashes last year, the agency says.

Reimer says cellphone-makers need to address font size and type as well, especially now that cars can increasingly project smartphone features onto dash displays.

Chevrolet's 2013 Sonic and Spark small cars have an application called GoGo that can show smartphones' navigation systems on the cars' touch screens. Starting next year, Mercedes-Benz says it will integrate smartphones -- including those by Nokia, HTC and Samsung -- into cars through the MirrorLink open standard.

NHTSA's proposed guidelines require all dashboard functions to be possible with one or more two-second glances away from the road.

Some luxury automakers are allowing drivers to read snippets of emails, texts and social media on dashboard displays. That's raised concerns among some safety experts, although many argue it's safer than when drivers read them on cellphones.

Edmunds.com executive editor Michael Jordan said automakers have been slow to adopt this technology because they are weighing "the issues of distracted driving with a consumer demand for more technology and connectivity in their vehicles."

Carroll Lachnit, Edmunds' consumer advice editor, said "the ability to read content from an email, text or social media channel from behind the wheel is quite worrying."

One popular font used in cars "conveys power and energy," but is so compact and tightly spaced some letters are "nearly indistinguishable from each other," said Steve Matteson, a researcher on the study who works for Monotype. Monotype's fonts are used by clients for Ford vehicles, the Kindle and Nook, Garmin navigation systems and the xBox, among other products.

Automakers are addressing this issue, along with all of the other vehicle-driver "interfaces" that can take eyes off the road, said Wade Newton, spokesman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers.

"Automakers go way, way beyond this," said Newton. "Every aspect of a vehicle display is designed to safely communicate important information to the driver, including fonts -- and that includes the colour of fonts."

Ford Motor, for example, announced in June 2011 it would boldface the fonts in its vehicles to make them easier to see. The researchers aren't sure why men were more distracted by fonts than women, who showed little difference in their ability to read different styles.

Although it isn't studying fonts, NHTSA welcomes related in-car improvements.

"Manufacturers are not limited from using any features that could reduce distraction," said NHTSA spokeswoman Lynda Tran. "Ultimately, the agency welcomes any innovation that might reduce the amount of time a driver's attention is diverted from the roadway."

-- USA Today

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