Cities Ban Digital Billboards, Say They're a Distraction

Several cities nationwide have banned digital billboards because the signs distract drivers, they said. The images on the billboards change every four to 10 seconds.

Two states and two cities are considering wider bans. Take a look at this national map, which lists where digital billboards are located. (Give the map 15 seconds or so to load; it is pretty heavy with data.)

USA Today said research is mixed as to whether the signs pose a hazard:

"A Virginia Tech Transportation Institute study in 2007, financed by the billboard industry, found that they aren't distracting. A review of studies completed last year for the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, however, concluded that they 'attract drivers' eyes away from the road for extended, demonstrably unsafe periods of time.'

" 'There's no doubt in my mind that they are not a driving distraction,' says Bryan Parker, an executive vice president for Clear Channel Outdoor, which owns about 400 digital billboards. He cites industry-sponsored studies of collisions before and after digital billboards were installed in Albuquerque, Cleveland, and Rochester, Minn., that found no correlation.

" 'We've looked at that very carefully,' says Bill Ripp, vice president of Lamar Advertising, which owns 159,000 billboards, 1,150 of them digital. 'We don't want to cause any unsafe conditions for drivers.'

"Digital billboards are a fast-growing segment of the outdoor advertising market. Since a federal rule against them was eased in 2007, the number of digital billboards has more than doubled to about 1,800 of 450,000 total billboards. At least 39 states allow them. They cost an average $200,000 to $300,000 apiece, according to the industry group Outdoor Advertising Association of America."

Scenic America, a group that supports billboard restrictions, has a collection of resources on the issue, including testimony from researchers who say digital billboards are a distraction.

Scenic America said that if digital billboards are allowed, they should not change images so quickly that they distract drivers. The group said the speed of the message change may be tied to the speed of the traffic going by the sign:

"Currently, for instance, most jurisdictions allow image changes every 4-10 seconds, depending on state and local laws. The report calls for image rotation rates to be be determined for each individual sign by a formula that divides the distance from which the sign is visible by the speed limit of the road. That means, for example, that on a highway where the speed limit is 60 mph and the sign is visible from a mile away, the image could change every 60 seconds; on a commercial street with a 40 mph limit and with the sign visible from a quarter mile, the image could rotate every 23 seconds."
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    Al Tompkins

    Al Tompkins is The Poynter Institute’s senior faculty for broadcasting and online. He has taught thousands of journalists, journalism students and educators in newsrooms around the world.


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