Whose Symbols Are Safer?

NHTSA proposes a transition period to help drivers understand some ISO symbols for vehicle controls and telltales.

WHEN it comes to distractions, today's car and truck drivers can select any number of ways to focus on anything except the road. All of us know that jabbering on a cell phone or reading the newspaper while flying down the expressway during rush hour is probably not a good idea. But the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is focusing its efforts on a less obvious source of driver distraction: motor vehicle controls.

NHTSA is seeking to update and expand the original version of Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard (FMVSS) 101, Controls and Displays. The changes it has proposed in the standard would dictate certain controls, telltales, and indicators be identified by symbols. (The original version of the rule requires that either symbols or words be used.) NHTSA also is seeking to extend the standard's display requirements to vehicles with a Gross Value Weight Rating (GVWR) greater than 10,000 pounds.

The notice of proposed rulemaking from the agency also would update requirements for multi-function controls and displays, in order to make the requirements appropriate for advanced systems.

The move from a combination of symbols and words to just symbols is not without its challenges. Many Americans are used to seeing the warnings that use a pairing, such as the word "oil" combined with the symbol for an oil can. The proposed rule stipulates that NHTSA would move to adopt ISO symbols for controls and displays in motor vehicles.

Going With ISO's Symbols
Many ISO symbols already are used on American vehicles, which would help American drivers adjust to new symbols because they are already used to seeing them, according to NHTSA. However, some of the current symbols are combined with words to ensure they are understood, while others are not ISO symbols at all. Even with an obvious adjustment period, NHTSA claims the move to international symbols will equal greater safety on the road.

"We tentatively conclude that requiring vehicle controls and displays to be consistently identified by means of an internationally recognized set of graphs in all vehicles would promote safety," the NPRM reads. "This is particularly important as the controls and displays in vehicles increase in number and complexity. . . . Moreover, the internationally recognized symbols are independent of any particular language."

The agency's hope is that anyone driving a vehicle manufactured for sale in America will be able to understand any control or telltale, regardless of the language he or she speaks. Drivers from many different parts of the world should all be able to recognize the ISO symbols. The result: less confusion, fewer accidents.

Not everyone agrees. Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety (located in Washington, D.C., it is online at www.autosafety.org), says moving to a different system could cause just as much confusion for current Americans as it would aid those coming other from countries where the symbols are already used. "It may be a help to immigrant groups who are used to the symbols, but it's a trade-off to domestic drivers," Ditlow cautions.

NHTSA is aware some symbols will be hard for Americans to understand. For example, studies indicate Americans do not comprehend the ISO symbol for a brake malfunction, which depicts a brake drum and shoes with an exclamation point in the center. To compensate, NHTSA has proposed that the word "brake" be included under the ISO symbol for a period of five years to help with the transition. Even with a transition period, NHTSA makes it clear that it believes standardization to ISO symbols is imperative.

"We tentatively conclude that requiring vehicle controls and displays to be consistently identified by means of an internationally recognized set of graphics in all vehicles would promote safety," the agency stated in its proposal. "This is particularly important as the controls and displays in vehicles increase in number and complexity. The consistent use in all new motor vehicles of a single symbol for each function would increase the recognition of that function among all drivers."

Moving Too Slowly?
Ditlow agrees standardization is key, but he believes NHTSA is not acting fast enough. "It does not matter who the winner is, as long as there is standardization. . . . Any delay in decision-making can lead to an accident. . . . We would prefer that they pick a system and go with it without the transition period," he says.

NHTSA maintains that most stakeholders in the motor vehicle industry support its efforts to adopt the ISO symbols. The American Automobile Manufacturers Association (AAMA) in particular supported the move, noting ISO symbols have been used in American vehicles for years and that the "motoring public has been educated as to the meaning of these symbols."

The use of ISO symbols will only reduce confusion if the majority of drivers worldwide are using them. While many cars, both in the United States and elsewhere, already use the symbols, they are not always mandated. To that end, NHTSA and Transport Canada (the Canadian equivalent of the U.S. Department of Transportation) discussed ways to revise their controls and displays standards to be more consistent with American, Canadian, and European standards. These discussions, in part, brought about the proposed changes in NHTSA's standard.

The United States and Canada also have discussed the possibility that the proposed FMVSS 101 will be considered for adoption by other countries participating in the United Nations/Economic Commission for Europe World Forum for Harmonization of Vehicle Regulations. The 1998 Global Agreement establishes a procedure for the adoption of such rules as "global technical regulations."

The proposed rule was open for public comments through late November 2003, presumably to be followed by a final NHTSA rule.

This article originally appeared in the February 2004 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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