Critics Say Digital Signs Distract Drivers

by | Nov 15, 2013 | Car Accident

Digital billboards are a hotly contested highway safety issue. Even though outdoor advertisers have guidelines for billboards that were implemented by the Highway Beautification Act in the 1960s, the invention of brightly lit electronic billboards that shuffle through different ads has sparked debate nationwide. Some states and cities ban digital billboards altogether on the grounds that these giant “TVs on a stick” distract drivers and cause traffic wrecks.

The Oklahoma DOT issues permits to outdoor advertisers to erect the signs, and an electronic billboard company is headquartered in Tulsa. Digital advertising is expensive but precious to business owners, who are willing to pay a premium and take advantage of their eye-catching flash and glamour. But some Oklahoma communities are considering prohibiting them.

The city of Edmond held a public forum about electronic messaging billboards in mid-October to gauge public support for a digital billboard ordinance. Businesses around Edmond and Oklahoma City support digital advertising and favor leniency for the signs. One proposal the city council is considering would limit how often the ads on electronic billboards can change. Most signs shift to a new message every four to eight seconds, but some Edmond residents have suggested only one ad change per hour to limit a flashing effect.

A Distraction that Causes Accidents

Scenic America, an organization with chapters all over the nation, strongly opposes electronic billboards. The organization cites two reasons that digital billboards are bad for the community:

  • The billboards create a serious distraction that causes traffic accidents.
  • The signs cast off lots of light pollution that takes away from the scenic value of a highway or road.

Scenic America cites a recent Swedish study that concluded that electronic signs hold a driver’s gaze for an unsafe length of time.

Oklahoma companies can get permits for electronic billboards, but there have been problems with outdoor advertisers putting up signs without filing the necessary paperwork. In late 2012 residents in the Tulsa area town of Owasso complained about a blindingly bright digital billboard that turned out to be illegal.

The Federal Highway Administration is conducting its own research on electronic messaging billboards. The research uses on-road instrument measurements, a naturalistic driving study of driver distraction, and scientific observation of motorists who drive past digital billboards.