Will Virginia Get a New Font for Highway Signs? 

New changes could make them harder to read, studies show.

click to enlarge highway_fonts.jpg

Drivers with poor eyesight may be squinting a little more as the result of a change in highway signs by the Federal Highway Administration.

In 2004, the administration granted several states conditional approval of a font developed for older and poorly sighted drivers. But it may be harder to read, according to a report from The Atlantic.

The current font, Clearview, initially was supported after studies showed that it significantly improved the legibility of highway signs. Donald Meeker, one of the font's developers, says that Virginia was one of 18 to 20 states that adopted the font for highway use. There are others who approved it for use by localities on a case-by-case basis.

Meeker says that Clearview shows as much as a 30-percent improvement in visibility. It’s an improvement over the original font, Highway Gothic, which was developed in the 1940s.

“It’s like doing it in vacuum tubes instead of microchips,” he says about the shift back to Clearview.

Meeker says that Clearview gives greater visibility to ascending letters, which typically harder to view, than what is mandated by federal standards.

But a highway administration spokesman says that Clearview actually diminishes visibility in negative contrast situations -- which is when black letters are used on lighter backgrounds, The Atlantic reports. This occurs in speed limit and warning signs.

Certain letters in Clearview also may appear clearer because they have more counter, or negative space, within the letter, says Mark Jeffries, who teaches graphics for journalism at Virginia Commonwealth University.

But in case you take notice whizzing by, Clearview may be more attractive.

It's “more pleasing to the eye,” Jeffries says. “The [Highway Gothic] font is clunky and too compact.”

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