Creating Effective Variable Message Signs: Human Factors Issues

Report No: 98-CR31

Published in 1998

About the report:

This report addresses the human factors issues related to the reading and comprehension of variable message sign (VMS) messages. A review of the literature was conducted on factors that affect how people read VMSs. Several topics were reviewed. The first topic was literacy. Since reading literacy is not a requirement for obtaining a driver's license, VMS composition should reflect the varied reading competence levels of motorists. It was found that about 25% of Virginians over the age of 16 are weak readers and will likely encounter problems reading VMSs. The second topic addressed how people read. Reading is an interactive process that derives much of its speed and accuracy from implicit knowledge acquired through familiarity. This implies that VMS messages should present familiar, standardized content whenever possible. A review of the literature on warning signs was the third topic. Effective warning signs should have several properties: Short, concise messages are both easier to read and more likely to be read. Signal words, such as CAUTION, are not effective. Finally, areas for further research were identified. Symbolic messages and abbreviations are worthy of further investigation as they have the potential for easy recognition, provided they are familiar to motorists and can be accommodated by the VMS. In addition, although the MUTCD advises angling the VMS away from the roadway to reduce headlight glare, angling the VMS toward the roadway could be desirable for increasing readability. In both these areas, theoretical and practical work is needed. The report recommends that these human factors characteristics and limitations be taken into consideration in the deployment of VMSs and in the composition of their messages.

Disclaimer Statement:The contents of this report reflect the views of the author(s), who is responsible for the facts and the accuracy of the data presented herein. The contents do not necessarily reflect the official views or policies of the Virginia Department of Transportation, the Commonwealth Transportation Board, or the Federal Highway Administration. This report does not constitute a standard, specification, or regulation. Any inclusion of manufacturer names, trade names, or trademarks is for identification purposes only and is not to be considered an endorsement.


  • Dennis R. Proffitt, Melissa M. Wade

Last updated: December 15, 2023

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