Car Seat Instructions

In 1998, traffic accidents caused 46 percent of all accidental deaths of infants and children aged 1 to 14 . One study showed that the single strongest risk factor for injury in an traffic accident is the improper use of child safety seats.

Another study showed that, correctly used, child safety seats reduce the risk of fatal injury by 71 percent and hospitalization by 67 percent. To work, however, the seats must be installed correctly. Other studies have shown that 79 to 94 percent of car seats are used improperly .

Public-health specialists Dr. Mark Wegner and Deborah Girasek suspected that poor understanding of the installation instructions might contribute to this problem. They looked into the readability of the instructions and published their findings in the 2003 Spring issue of the medical journal Pediatrics. The story was covered widely in the media.

The authors referred to the National Adult Literacy Study, which says the average adult in the U.S. reads at the 7th grade level. They also cited experts in health literacy who recommend that materials for the public be written at the fifth or sixth-grade reading level.

They found that the average reading level of the 107 instructions they examined was the 10th grade, too difficult for most adult readers. The authors did not address the design, completeness, or the organization of the instructions. They did not say that the instructions were written badly, but were written at the wrong grade level.

You can be sure the manufacturers of the car safety seats are scrambling to re-write their instructions.

Dignitary Harm

Medical-research institutions took note in 1999 when Tampa General Hospital and University of South Florida paid a $3.8 million settlement to a group of women who claimed the informed consent they had signed exceeded their reading abilities.

The plaintiffs cited a law regarding dignitary harm, which is compensable even in the absence of other injury. The consent form, they claimed, informed them that they have no meaningful role in the research, because it is something that they cannot understand. Similar cases are pending elsewhere.

Plain-Language Benefits

Here are the results of a few studies on the benefits of plain language:

  • In a test of a traditional-versus-revised letter, the U.S. Veterans Administration found that readers who failed to understand the letter dropped from 56% to 11% for the revised version. The average reading time dropped from 8 to 6 minutes. The percentage of readers who judged the letter as somewhat difficult to read dropped from 44% to 0%.
  • A 1989 study found that 262 U.S. naval officers (half in the Pentagon) read a business memo written in a "high-impact" style in 17% less time than the same memo written in the "traditional bureaucratic" style. Only half as many felt the need to reread the high-impact memo.
  • A 1993 study found that 129 officers of the U.S. Army reading a memo written in a "high-impact" style were twice as likely to comply with the memo on the day they got it.
  • In 1996, the average time for 522 parents to read a revised pamphlet on polio vaccine from the Center for Disease Control dropped from 14 minutes to 4.5 minutes. Only 49% said the chances would be good to excellent that they would read the original pamphlet, but 89% said so for the revised one.

Your Stake in Plain Language

Even though average adults in the U.S. have a 7th-grade reading ability, most of the everyday documents they need to understand, however, far exceed that level. They include product descriptions, applications, consent forms, instructions, notices, health information, contracts, schedules, statements, manuals, and drug and warning labels.

What happens when a document is too difficult for these readers? Unless they are highly motivated, they simply stop reading. If they are well informed, they call support or ask for explanations until they understand what is required of them.

Most, however, will fail the reading task, not realizing they have a right to understand what they are reading. This leaves your organization with one or more of the following problems:

  • Incomplete or badly completed forms and applications.
  • Forms and contracts signed without being understood.
  • Instructions and warnings ignored or neglected.
  • Frustrated employees, customers, and clients.

Managers often feel that poor writing is one of the unavoidable costs of doing business. They have not realized the savings that plain language and good writing can bring:

  • Reduced costs of producing information.
  • Reduced costs of support and liability.
  • More efficient internal processes.
  • Expanded readership.
  • Grateful clientele and customers.

Ever since the 1960s, consumers have demanded documents in language they can understand. Business and government have been slow to oblige. Although a plain-language initiative is the best investment an organization can make, it is nobody's native tongue. It takes training, method, and a firm commitment by top management to document clarity.

We teach your staff to write at the level your audiences require. We help them understand what those requirements are and how to meet them.

It is a new world. You cannot afford not to use plain language.

Plain Language in the News

London's Clarity Awards

Delaware's new jury instructions

Pharmacy medication errors

Plain English and tax reform in Topeka

Seniors on the superhighway

Financial jargon and plain English

Hi-tech computer report baffles town council