Digital billboards called driving threat


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New billboards
So high-tech
Could distract
And cause a wreck
Burma-Shave

Billboards have come a long way since the shaving cream signs erected one after another on the roadsides, or the Mail Pouch entreaties painted on the sides of yesteryear's barns.

Digital advertising signs are lighting the landscape in increasing numbers, and with them comes a new report warning that they are more likely than their low-tech predecessors to drive motorists to dangerous distraction.

Written by Jerry Wachtel, a California-based engineering psychologist and traffic safety expert, the report disputes earlier, well-publicized studies commissioned by the billboard industry that found no increased accident hazard from the brightly lighted electronic signs, which change their messages every few seconds.

"Research sponsored by the outdoor advertising industry generally concludes that there are no adverse impacts from roadside digital billboards, even when, in one case, the actual findings of such research indicate otherwise," he wrote in a report for the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials.

"Conversely, the conclusions reached in research sponsored by government agencies, insurance companies, and auto safety organizations ... regularly demonstrate that the presence of roadside advertising signs such as digital billboards contributes to driver distraction at levels that adversely affect safe driving performance."

Jeff Golimowski, spokesman for the Outdoor Advertising Association of America, said much of the research reviewed by Mr. Wachtel did not deal directly with electronic billboards.

Relevant studies have shown "there is no correlation between traffic accidents and digital billboards," he said.

One anti-billboard group, Scenic America, has cited the Wachtel study in urging municipalities not to approve any new digital signs until further study of safety issues is done.

"Too many cities and towns have been relying on those [industry] studies in approving digital signage," said Mary Tracy, interim president.

Advancing technology is likely to make the problem of distracted motorists worse, Mr. Wachtel said in an interview.

The newest billboards are capable of interacting with approaching drivers. "In some cases, the Radio Frequency Identification Device embedded in a vehicle's key or on-board computer system can trigger a personalized message on a digital billboard," he wrote.

In some cities, owners of Mini Cooper automobiles can opt into a program that flashes personalized messages to them as they pass digital signs, he said.

In Paris, cell phone users can register to receive calls from billboards as they pass, offering additional product information and promotions.

In California, a giant digital sign monitors the signals emitted by FM radios of passing vehicles and uses that information and a database to post ads that are targeted to the demographics of those driving by, based on what stations they are tuned to.

Still other signs invite motorists to send cell phone text messages that cause the billboard display to change.

And the advertising has begun to merge with the traffic, as electronic signs are being installed on the sides of trucks, buses and vans.

"The potential for driver distraction grows with each such installation," wrote Mr. Wachtel, who has studied traffic safety issues for 30 years.

"I'm convinced that it is [a problem] and that it's only going to get worse," he told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

For his report, he reviewed nearly four dozen studies conducted worldwide over the last quarter-century, including studies paid for by the outdoor advertising industry.

He found fault with two studies touted by the industry in 2007 as showing no safety hazard from electronic billboards.

In one, by Virginia Tech's Transportation Institute, the researchers concluded that digital billboards did not increase the frequency of drivers looking away from the road for 1.6 to 2 seconds, durations found by other studies to significantly increase crash risk.

Based on the researchers' own data, that finding "is clearly inaccurate," Mr. Wachtel wrote.

He said glances of 1.6 seconds or more were observed in 13 percent of the trips through digital billboard areas, compared with 7.5 percent at conventional billboard sites, and glances of 2 seconds or more were seen in 7 percent of trips past digital billboards, compared with 4.5 percent at conventional billboards -- differences he described as "rather dramatic."

He cited numerous other flaws in the researchers' methods.

"Throughout the report, there are conflicting and inconsistent statements, and evidence of bias," he wrote.

Mr. Wachtel said he is not anti-billboard but favors regulations to control the brightness and placement of the signs and the frequency of the changes in messages.

Especially at night or in inclement weather, "a bright sign can draw attention away from the road, official [traffic control devices] and other vehicles," he wrote.

Signs that change messages more frequently are a greater distraction because drivers tend to look at them longer, he said. He recommended a formula for ensuring that no motorist sees more than one change in the message while a digital billboard is in sight.

The signs should not be placed near interchanges or in other places where drivers face challenging conditions, and should be spaced so that no driver sees more than one at a time, he said.

Pittsburgh's planning commission is expected to revisit the issue of digital billboard regulation next month. Two bills dealing with the issue have been pending in City Council since last year.

Dan Sentz, environmental planner for the city, said the legislation is expected to address the key issues of brightness, how frequently the messages change and placements away from areas that already are challenging to motorists.

If approved, the measure would give the zoning board of adjustment responsibility to review each application for a digital billboard, a process that includes a public hearing.

That "allows us to address safety issues on a site-by-site basis," Mr. Sentz said.

Mr. Golimowski said of the 450,000 billboard facings in the U.S., about 1,400 are digital. He expects that number to grow by several hundred per year "for the foreseeable future."

The interactive uses cited by Mr. Wachtel are "not the direction the industry is going," he said.

Lamar Advertising, the largest local outdoor advertising company, has 20 digital billboards in Allegheny County, said David Shirey, sales manager.

Among the locations are the Parkway East, Parkway North, Airport Expressway, McKnight Road, Saw Mill Run Boulevard, Banksville Road, Ohio River Boulevard and the Boulevard of the Allies at Grant Street, Downtown.


Jon Schmitz can be reached at jschmitz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1868.


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