Reporter 460, 4 December 2000

Transport team points Welsh assembly in right direction

Can reading Welsh harm your health Ė or even worse kill you?

Itís a question the National Assembly of Wales takes seriously Ė so much so that itís commissioned research from the University of Leeds into new electronic road signs soon to be installed across Britainís motorway network.

Dr Oliver Carsten and Fergus Tate of the Institute for Transport Studies at the University have been investigating the likely impact of the variable message signs (VMS). The signs can display four lines of words. Needless to say, safety is the main issue.

"When a message gets too long people donít have enough time to read it and they slow down and that can be a problem, particularly at relatively high speeds," said Mr Tate.

Clearly, itís imperative a motorist can read and comprehend a sign without distraction. Nowadays, the complexity of motorway systems often means a variety of messages needs to be conveyed Ė thus the imminent adoption of the four-line VMS.

It might be necessary, for example, to relay information that high winds have closed a bridge; that there are tailbacks ahead; that drivers should curb their speed and exit at a particular junction.

Itís a lot of information to absorb quickly, more so if it has to be written in two languages for a bilingual country like Wales. The difficulty is exacerbated by the fact that both English and Welsh are written in Roman characters, making it difficult for the eye to make an immediate distinction.

Dr Carsten and Mr Tateís research involved work in the School of Psychology using a tachistoscope to measure reading times under ideal conditions. They also conducted a series of experiments using the Leeds Advanced Driving Simulator to look at how reading signs affected driving performance.

The sample of drivers included those who spoke only English and those who were bilingual (Welsh and English). The Welsh speakers were recruited through the University, through local Welsh groups and some were invited over from Wales.

Surprisingly, perhaps, motorway signs written in Welsh are not necessarily longer than those in English.

This, says Mr Tate, is because the Welsh language has adapted some words and spelt them phonetically: queue in English, for example is ciw in Welsh.

Of course, in English, queue can be abbreviated to Q and still be easily understood.

The research teamís tests included experimenting with abbreviations and character count as well as with pictograms, colours and lines separated by rules.

Its results have now been submitted to the research sponsor.

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