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Road Management Journal
Copyright © 1997 by TranSafety, Inc.
September 2, 1997
TranSafety, Inc.
(360) 683-6276
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Florida survey helps in selecting sign wording international tourists will understand
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Florida Survey Helps in Selecting Sign Wording International Tourists will Understand

Given the size and importance of Florida's tourism industry, the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) conducted a study to find out if guide signs in some of Florida's large cities adequately accommodated international tourists. The study consisted of two surveys. The first was a critical incident analysis of major cities in Florida; it focused on highway locations where tourists had difficulty interpreting existing signs. The second survey involved field inspections of the problematic signs; these data were used for human factors and traffic engineering analyses. Conclusions fell into five overall categories, and the researchers made recommendations for changes to problem signs and areas. Conrad L. Dudek, R. Dale Huchingson, Nada Trout, and Dana Chester detailed the results of the study in their article entitled "International Tourist Guidance Needs and Understanding of Selected Guide Signs in Florida," published in Transportation Research Record 1550.


At the beginning of the study, the critical incident survey was given to 500 international tourists in the flight departure areas of the Miami and Orlando international airports. More than 50 percent (273) of the tourists were from Europe, followed by 160 from South America, and 59 from North America (Canada, Mexico, and Central America). After they completed the surveys, the tourists were asked if they had suggestions for making guide signs easier to comprehend. Comments and suggestions were collected from 219 of the 500 participants.

The need for better advance notice for highway exits was the most frequent concern expressed in the responses (33 percent), followed by comments on confusing messages (16 percent), and observations about poor visibility and lighting (9 percent). In the fourth category (guidance to the destination), the majority suggested the need for more trailblazers and specific destination guidance. Overall, findings from this portion of the study indicated that changes in international tourist signs should focus on: providing advanced notice for exits, continuing guidance at the exit, clarifying the information itself, enlarging small print, improving lighting, furnishing specific trailblazers, improving car rental agency maps, and installing location markers for car rental agencies near airports.


A total of 486 international tourists participated in this portion of the study--groups of 162 tourists from each of three areas: Great Britain, Continental Europe, and Latin America. One of the six survey administrators gave each tourist a set of eight studies, but each tourist saw only one sign or message from each of the eight studies. Because of submission size limitations for three of the surveys, the authors presented only five of the eight studies in their report. In most cases, tourists viewed 8.5-inch x 11-inch colored prints of overhead guide signs displayed on a simulated three-lane section of freeway. Many signs represented actual problem sites in Orlando or Miami, but route numbers were changed to reduce result biases.

Study 1: Abbreviations for "International"

Because of space limitations, the word "international" must be abbreviated on signs. Study 1 investigated the shortest abbreviation for "international" that international tourists would understand.

Each tourist saw one of five abbreviations: "Int'l," "Intern'l," "Internat'l," "Int'l Dr.," or "Int'l Drive." As anticipated, only 65 percent of the international tourists understood the four-letter abbreviation. But surprisingly, only 87 percent and 81 percent understood the seven-letter and nine-letter abbreviations, respectively. In addition, in comparison to the abbreviation "Dr.," the word "Drive" increased understanding only slightly (from 65 to 72 percent). British tourists faired best (94 percent) in their understanding of the seven-letter abbreviation. Less than half the Latin American group understood either "Int'l Drive" or "Int'l Dr." Researchers concluded that "there is definitely a language problem in abbreviating these words and expecting understanding. That these two abbreviations were poorly understood suggested that a logo may be needed for International Drive in Orlando."

Study 2: Interpretation of Words Intended to Mean (Name of City) International Airport

Because of problems presented by the length of a phrase such as "Miami International Airport," this portion of the study determined whether words could be omitted from the phrase while keeping meaning intact. Five alternate messages were evaluated: "Airport," "Miami Airport," "International Airport," "Miami International Airport," and an airport logo (an airplane figure with the nose facing north and the tail facing south). Sixty-one percent of the respondents who saw the "Airport" message thought it meant any airport in the Miami area. Only 20 percent correctly identified it as referring to Miami International Airport, which suggested that this word alone did not convey the desired message. More significantly, 49 percent of the respondents thought the airplane logo (airport trailblazer symbol) meant any airport. Only 25 percent correctly identified it as a designator for a major international airport, which suggested the need for "a new logo reserved specifically for international airports."

Study 3: Route Designation for Central Business District and Airport

This portion of the study evaluated three alternate sign messages: "Orlando/International Airport," "Orlando Airport/Downtown," and "Orlando Airport/Downtown/plus airport logo." Each subject saw one of the three sign messages and then responded to the following question: "You are traveling east on a 3-lane freeway. If you continue straight on the freeway, will you eventually reach an exit for: the Orlando Airport, downtown Orlando, or both destinations?" About 65 percent responded that the first sign meant only one destination, in this case the airport. Only 29 percent understood that the sign designated two destinations: downtown Orlando and Orlando International Airport. Understanding increased with the second sign; 85 percent understood two destinations were designated. The airport logo on the third sign did not increase understanding of two destinations, but it may have improved recognition of the route to Orlando International Airport.

Study 4: Understanding Words and Symbols for Tourist Information Centers

Equal numbers of tourists were shown one of five designations for "Tourist Information": (1) the "?" used in U.S. airports; (2) the "I" used in some European countries; (3) "INFO," the well-known abbreviation for "information"; (4) "TOURIST INFO" (for "tourist information"); and (5) "VIS INFO" (for "visitor information").

The tourist groups showed significant variations in understanding. All groups showed poor understanding of the question mark; overall, only 22 percent of the tourists understood that the "?" meant a tourist information center. While the groups from Great Britain and Continental Europe understood the "I" to some degree, the Latin Americans did not. Almost all the tourists (92 percent) understood the abbreviation "INFO," and understanding was nearly perfect (98 percent) with "TOURIST INFO." The British group understood "VIS INFO" (94 percent), and Europeans did fairly well (81 percent), but Latin Americans (64 percent) had trouble understanding that "VIS" meant "visitor." The results indicated that "INFO" was the only abbreviation universally understood.

Study 5: Misleading Cardinal (Compass) Directions and Giving a Destination Versus Not Giving a Destination

This part of the study duplicated an actual situation in Orlando "in which the cardinal directions of a destination for I-4 are shown as WEST/EAST on signs, but the actual destination was to the south because I-4 runs north and south through Orlando."

Three sign designs were used to evaluate the strength of the cardinal directions and the use of supplemental destination information. The control alternative displayed the route shield, the cardinal direction, and the destination. A second sign showed the route shield and destination, but no misleading cardinal direction. The third sign showed the route shield and cardinal direction, but did not show the destination. The center lane was the only lane that would correctly access the destination route. An administrator explained a map to each subject, and the subject studied one of the three signs.

Click Here for FIGURE 1:
Alternative sign messages when destination and cardinal direction contradict

FIGURE 2: Map for Study 5

The subject was asked which lane should be taken to reach Disney World. Ninety-five percent chose the center lane when no misleading cardinal directions were given, while 92 percent chose the center lane when given the cardinal directions, route, and destination. Apparently, the cardinal directions "added nothing to the control condition." Yet when the destination was omitted, only 70 percent chose the correct center lane. Significantly more subjects who chose an incorrect lane chose the left lane over the right lane. Results "simply underscore[d] the need for destinations on all exit guide signs and the fact that transportation agencies should avoid displaying misleading cardinal directions in cases similar to I-4 in Orlando unless destinations are displayed."


  1. Study results revealed that longer abbreviations for the word "international" tend to be better understood, but "a logo may be desirable" to improve overall understanding. In Florida, "human factors studies should be conducted to determine whether international tourists understand the meaning of the four-letter abbreviation for 'INTERNATIONAL' when it is used with 'AIRPORT' or 'ORLANDO (MIAMI) AIRPORT.'"

  2. Results concerning the airport trailblazer symbol were "somewhat disturbing," given that nearly half the subjects thought it meant any airport instead of designating an international airport. Given this ambiguity, "studies should be conducted to determine whether a new logo reserved specifically for international airports is needed." Since international tourists had trouble linking the word "AIRPORT" to an international airport, "more descriptive signing should clearly identify the international airport."

  3. Displaying two destinations vertically on a sign was confusing when the city name was on top of "International Airport." Listing the airport on top and "Downtown" under it avoided this confusion, but "adding the logo for international airport contributed little to understanding that two destinations were upcoming."

  4. The "?" and "I" were poorly understood as designators for "tourist information center," while "INFO" and "TOURIST INFO" were well understood. As a result, when the "?" is used, "it should be supplemented with a 'TOURIST/INFO' or 'VISITOR/INFO' panel."

  5. Including misleading cardinal directions on a sign may have caused confusion when the destination was not included. When the destination was included, subjects did as well without the cardinal directions. Overall, "this study simply underscored the need to include major destinations so international tourists will not be confused."

Copyright © 1997 by TranSafety, Inc.

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