Digital Billboards Are Bad for Our Communities
A growing body of research demonstrates that digital billboards pose a threat to traffic safety. Digital billboards create dangerous and unavoidable driver distractions, by design and for the purpose of drawing driver attention away from the road and toward the advertisements. Images rotate every 6-10 seconds, and drivers will naturally look up at the sign to see what comes up next.
Specific research examples cited in this compendium, compiled by the Berkeley, California-based Veridian Group, which specializes in human factors research and its application to real-world concerns, include:
- A 2015 government-funded study on the impact of digital billboards along high-speed roadways in Alabama and Florida found crash rates 25 percent to 29 percent higher near the signs than at control sites down the road. Many of the crashes near digital displays involved rear-end collisions or sideswipes typical of driver distraction.
- A 2012 study by the Swedish government found that digital billboards took drivers’ eyes off the road for significant periods of time. As a result, Swedish officials ordered the removal of digital signs. Other studies from Denmark, Canada and Australia show similar concerns about digital billboards’ impact on traffic safety.
- An analysis of the 100-Car Naturalistic Driving Study, conducted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, released in 2006, showed that taking one’s eyes off the road for more than two seconds for any reason not directly related to driving (such as checking the rearview mirror) “significantly increased individual near-crash/crash risk.”
This change in driver behavior is similar to distractions from cell phones, which are now banned from use while driving in most areas.
All billboards are distracting by design, but digital billboards are particularly harmful due to the glare of the electronic lights and the changing messages that cause involuntary distraction responses in drivers. Drivers look at digital billboards for more time than they do at static signs, and driving ability is more significantly impaired.
Plus, digital billboard structures tend to have the same dimensions as static signs, with “bulletins” that average 14 feet by 48 feet in size. But in many cases, there are no above-grade restrictions on sign height. So, in practice, billboards are built to be in the line of sight for drivers.
These effects make roads more dangerous for drivers, as well as pedestrians, at a time when many cities are trying to improve road safety and reduce accidents and deaths.
Social and Economic Concerns
In addition to compromising safety, research shows that billboards devalue nearby properties.
A 2011 University of Pennsylvania study by urban planner Jonathan Snyder, Beyond Aesthetics, showed that homes located within 500 feet of a billboard are worth $31,000 less at the time of sale than those located further away. In addition, every billboard in a census tract correlated with a nearly $1,000 depreciation in home value compared to the city average. The presence of billboards reduces local property tax bases. Attempts by town and county governments to recoup these costs through permit fees and taxes on billboards never succeed in offsetting the lost value.
Communities can thrive without billboards because most billboards have no connection to the local economy. They advertise either national brands or out-of-state products and services. In addition, while billboard owners often pay little or no local taxes on the actual boards, they enjoy high-profit margins of 15 – 50 percent on every billboard face they own.
Billboard industry officials claim that businesses such as gas stations and eating and drinking establishments would be financially devastated by reducing or eliminating their outdoor advertising. On the contrary:
- In Williamsburg, VA, sales for eating and drinking establishments grew from $48 million in 1988 to $81 million in 1992, three years after billboard controls were toughened. In 1991 alone, total retail sales rose 44 percent despite an ongoing recession.
- In Raleigh, NC, sales for eating and drinking establishments rose from $243 million in 1989, before billboard control, to $307 million in 1992, after controls were introduced, a rise of about 20 percent.
- The total retail sales in Houston, TX, grew over 100 percent from $9 billion in 1981, the year after the Houston City Council prohibited new billboard construction, to about $19 billion by 1992. For eating and drinking establishments alone, the total rose from $908 million in 1981 to $2.1 billion in 1992. That year, the City Council strongly approved a new ordinance with amortization provisions to further reduce the number of billboards.
- Vermont took down its last billboard in 1975. From 1976-1978, tourism revenues increased by over 50 percent.
- Many prime tourist destinations prohibit new billboard construction even as their tourism revenues keep rising: Palm Springs and Big Sur, CA; Key West, Florida; Martha’s Vineyard, MA; Kitty Hawk and Nags Head, NC; South Padre Island, TX; Santa Fe, NM; Aspen and Boulder, CO; Holland, MI; and Portland, OR.
Digital billboards are bad for the environment. The light pollution from these signs disrupts the circadian rhythms and related behavior of local wildlife. People are also not immune to this kind of pollution, and residents exposed to these billboards can suffer similar disruptive effects.
Billboards damage and destroy the trees that line our roadways. In 32 states, billboard companies are legally permitted to cut and remove publicly owned trees in order to make their signs more visible. Removal of these highway buffer trees contributes to erosion and negatively impacts air quality. Surrounding neighborhoods and property owners suffer from increased noise and light pollution.
Digital billboards waste energy. An October 2019 billboard industry blog stated that one 10 x 30-foot board in Texas used 20,440 kilowatt-hours (kwh) of power per year. By comparison, the average Los Angeles household uses 6,000 kwh per year.
Digital billboards project light outwards and can illuminate the area near them for quite some distance. People who live near digital billboards complain that they light up their living rooms and bedrooms with constantly changing colored lights. Dark skies groups and astronomers complain that they flood the night sky with ambient light.
Billboard FactsGet the facts about the outdoor advertising industry.
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Research and ReportsFind additional research and reports on billboard safety.
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