Technology

The New Digital Divide

Electronic billboards are attention-grabbers. Some people argue they distract drivers.
by | February 2007

In the old days, when it came time to change the image on a billboard, a workman would pull a ladder out of his station wagon, climb up and repaint it. In more recent decades, the tool of choice has been glue, to affix print-quality images that are screened onto vinyl. But now with the advent of digital LED signage--the big-screen TVs of the roadways--what's displayed on some billboards can be changed instantly via remote computers.

That's a boon to advertising companies, which can rent out the same sign to numerous companies willing to take turns showing off their respective wares for a few seconds at a time. Many businesses like the signs because they can alert consumers to the latest information about mortgage rates or sales ending tomorrow. As a result, electronic billboards are now common in hundreds of communities. Despite their high cost--running up to $500,000 apiece--they aren't just for Times Square anymore.

The very fact that such signs are so good at attracting attention, however, has made skeptics out of some public officials. It seems like only common sense that a bright sign the size of a house would create a distraction for drivers, especially after dark. And they certainly don't comport with every aesthetic sensibility. "They are enormously distracting," says Kevin Fry, of the advocacy group Scenic America. "Outdoor advertising by definition is trying to force you to look at it instead of the things that are around it or behind it."

Despite the complaints, states for the most part have accepted the coming of digital highway signs. In part because they are relatively new, there have been few studies of their effects. But so far, the evidence suggests that they aren't distracting enough to be responsible for actual accidents or near misses. "Neither visual behavior nor driving behavior changes measurably, even in the presence of the most visually attention-getting billboards," concluded the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute in 2004.

About two-dozen states have changed their laws or regulations to give the green light to signs with "changeable messages." Only four states have blocked the new technology, while four others disallow billboards altogether. The rest rely for guidance on a 1996 Federal Highway Administration finding that said "tri-action" billboards, which flipped three different painted images mechanically, were okay. "Under the nomenclature of changeable messages, that would include a digital change of copy display," says Ken Klein, of the Outdoor Advertising Association of America.

States have imposed some limits. They don't allow flashing or scrolling images or full-motion video--no fireworks displays or battery-powered bunnies marching across the screens. (Regulations are typically more lax when the billboard is on the property of the advertiser, such as a car dealer.) States also insist that the image not change too often. Generally, each message has to remain on display for at least six to eight seconds.

That's still too much distraction for some jurisdictions. The city of Atlanta last month placed a temporary moratorium on electronic billboard permits, citing public health and safety concerns. Concord, New Hampshire, is currently defending its ban against two separate legal challenges. And some believe that the billboards violate the 1965 federal Highway Beautification Act. "My personal opinion is that they're somewhat jarring when they change images, particularly at night," says John Woodling, chair of the planning commission in Monroe County, Pennsylvania, where a township has banned them.

Still, as long as the images don't change too rapidly or too often, they're being welcomed in more and more places. In fact, several governments have entered into agreements with advertising companies to use the signs for Amber Alerts or emergency messages.

Rather than protesting the presence of 10 electronic billboards in Albuquerque, Nadine Martinez, a marketing development manager with a city agency, says, "our mayor thought it would be a good idea to partner with them to utilize this technology."

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