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Digital billboards: yet another driver distraction

May 29, 2010
By Dave Werner, Franklin County Traffic Safety Board

Digital billboards, or more formally "commercial electronic variable message signs," are perhaps the newest of driver distractions.

These are the large, commercial, electronic message billboards that change images every four to 10 seconds. Although there are none in Franklin County at this time (likely because they cost $200,000 to $300,000 apiece), they are a fast-growing segment of the outdoor advertising market.

We do have a close resemblance locally, however. The electronic signs at the Franklin County Fairgrounds, Hosler's Restaurant, 5th Wheel Diesel and Walgreen's drug store in the Malone area are very similar but much smaller.

Unlike conventional static billboards, digital billboards have the ability to constantly convey different information to motorists, thereby increasing driver curiosity. They also have the potential to attract increased attention through their brightness and temporal changes of light.

Given the driver distraction potential of these billboards many cities in the U.S. have banned them entirely while others have moratoriums on their installation. In New York state, the state Department of Transportation has developed regulations on where these signs can and can't be located, the minimum time a message must appear before changing, spacing regulations between signs, and maximum brightness for day and night illumination.

Research has shown that it is important to not overburden drivers with too much additional information while they are engaged in the driving task. A 2006 report released by the National Highway Safety Administration concluded that nearly 80 percent of crashes and 65 percent of near-crashes involved some form of driver inattention within three seconds before the event. While it is impossible to completely insulate drivers from potential distractions, the distracting characteristics of digital billboards can be minimized by prohibiting their placement at locations that already place high demands upon driver attention and could interfere with the safe operation of their motor vehicles.

To achieve a compromise between an outright ban and no regulation, a DOT directive dated October 2008 states these variable message signs "cannot be located in such a manner as to obstruct, obscure or otherwise physically interfere with the effectiveness of an official traffic sign, signal or device, or with the driver's view of approaching, merging or intersecting traffic, or interfere with the driver's operation of a motor vehicle."Meanwhile, more research is being conducted to see just how distracting these signs really are. The Federal Highway Administration is researching the signs, using eye-trackers inside the volunteers' vehicles to determine whether drivers look at the billboards and for how long. The study should be completed this summer. The results of this and other studies may determine the future of this newest form of potential driver distraction.

For more traffic safety information, and articles on vehicle and traffic law, go to and click on the "Traffic Safety Board" from the pull-down menu of departments.



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