Digital Billboards

Digital Billboards: The biggest threat now facing America’s communities and highways is the proliferation of digital billboards.  These huge TVs-on-a-stick distract drivers, throw off huge amounts of light into neighboring homes and the night sky, and constitute a magnified blight on the landscape.

Click on any headline to read more.

Background on Digital Billboards

Digital billboards, electronic billboards, changeable variable message centers – whatever you call them they are the same thing: huge roadside distractions and aesthetic catastrophes.

Critique of FHWA digital billboard safety study

The first comprehensive review of the Federal Highway Administration’s (FHWA) digital billboard safety study says the study’s conclusions are seriously flawed.

The critique by the Veridian Group, first publicized in the newsletter of the Eno Center for Transportation, says FHWA’s study, published in 2013, fails at its principal task of determining whether digital billboards pose a risk to traffic safety.

#877d7d; float: right;” src=”/storage/images/Did_that_billboard_just_change.jpg” alt=”Did that billboard just change” width=”295″ height=”224″ />The Veridian Group’s critique has been independently peer reviewed by 14 international experts in human factors and traffic safety.  Download the critique as a PDF here.

“Rather than providing a justifiable direction for Federal policy regarding [digital billboards], the report leaves State and local Governments in limbo because of decisions, errors and internal conflicts that call its findings into question,” the report concludes.

Veridian’s critique found serious concern with FHWA’s report in the following areas:

  • • The equipment used was unproven, the researchers were not experienced with it, and the data suffered as a result;
  • • The billboards studied by FHWA were dramatically less bright than those studied elsewhere, suggesting they would have attracted less driver attention;
  • • The number of billboards included in the data is paltry: 4 digital and 4 static billboards in each of two cities, a total of 16 signs.
  • • Unexplained differences between eye glance duration reported in the draft report (which one peer reviewer called ‘not credible’) and those listed in the final report;
  • • Other significant and unexplained differences between the draft report released for peer review in 2010 and the final report issued in December 2013.

“For more than a year the billboard industry has been touting FHWA’s study as proof positive that digital billboards do not pose a threat to traffic safety,” said Mary Tracy, president of Scenic America.  “With the Veridian critique, we know that the issue of digital billboards and traffic safety is far from settled, and any public agency considering allowing the bright, blinking signs on their roadsides should take this critique into account first.”

Digital Billboard Safety Studies

It seems common sense that digital billboards are distracting, after all, that’s their job.  But while the billboard industry tells advertisers “drivers won’t be able to avoid them,” they tell regulators that the signs don’t pose a safety hazard.

News on Digital Billboards

The billboard industry sees digital signs as the future of outdoor advertising, and they are engaged in a full-court press to get as many of the signs up as quickly as they can around the country.  We’ll try to keep tabs on the latest developments here.

Official Highway Message Signs and Advertising

In recent years three separate states (California, Florida and Pennsylvania) have floated the idea of turning over their official highway message signs to the outdoor advertising industry.  The billboard companies would pay the state for the right to show advertising on the signs in between official messages.

Rutgers Law Review note argues digital billboards violate the HBA

The latest edition of the Rutgers Law Review includes a note by law student Susan C. Sharpe — Between Beauty and Beer Signs — that argues that digital billboards violate the spirit and letter of the Highway Beautification Act (HBA) of 1965.

Swedish Study Shows Digital Billboards Distract Drivers

The photos below were taken
in Stockholm, Sweden in 2009,
during the country’s test of
digital billboards.  The signs
have since been removed.
Click to enlarge.#696969; padding: 0px; width: 0px;”>Stockholme digital billboard
#696969; padding: 0px; width: 0px;”>stockholme digital billboard
#696969; padding: 0px; width: 0px;”>stockholme digital billboard

A new study published in the journal Traffic Injury Prevention concludes that digital billboards attract and hold the gazes of drivers for far longer than a threshold that previous studies have shown to be dangerous.

The study, conducted by researchers at the Swedish National Road and Transport Research Institute and funded by the Swedish Transport Administration, found that drivers looked at digital billboards significantly longer than they did at other signs on the same stretch of road, with the digital signs often taking a driver’s eyes off the road for more than two seconds.

A well-regarded 2006 study by Virginia Tech for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that anything that takes a driver’s eyes off the road for more than two seconds greatly increases the risk of a crash.  The study also found that nearly 80 percent of all crashes involved driver inattention just prior to (within 3 seconds) of the crash.

The Swedish study’s authors reasoned that it’s not surprising that digital billboards attract greater attention from drivers: the signs are brighter, visible from greater distances, and display a constantly-changing series of advertisements.  They concluded that digital billboards “have the potential ability to keep up the driver’s curiosity over an extended period of time.”  Previous human behavior studies have shown that drivers are hardwired to notice bright, changing lights in their peripheral vision and to anticipate additional motion.

The Swedish government had given temporary authorization to erect digital billboards in 2009, but as a result of this and related studies the government ordered the removal of all digital billboards.  Meanwhile in the United States these signs continue to go up at a rapid pace despite a growing body of evidence suggesting they pose a threat to traffic safety.

Download the Swedish study’s abstract here:

Virginia Tech Study fact sheet: