CDOT to look at digital billboard rules |

CDOT to look at digital billboard rules

Bob Berwyn
Summit County correspondent
Aspen, CO Colorado
A sign over Interstate 70 near Copper Mountain alerts drivers of adverse weather. (Summit Daily/Mark Fox)

SUMMIT COUNTY ” A study beginning next year will help determine whether the Federal Highway Administration will regulate digital billboards alongside interstates and and other federal-aid roads.

Digital billboards generally take the form of large, changeable LED displays, similar to advertising signs in New York City’s Times Square or along the Las Vegas strip.

“We like to joke that it’s the first major innovation in billboards since paste,” said Jeff Golimowski, communications director for the Outdoor Advertising Association of America (OAAA). “It’s a revolution in the way we’re able to put content on boards,” Golimowski said.

Roadside signs have been a tried and true form of outdoor advertising since the Burma-Shave days. There are about 450,000 billboards across the country. The new LED signs account for only a small percentage of the total – about 700 to 800, according to Golimowski.

A highway watchdog group claims the new signs are a dangerous distraction to motorists and will lead to more accidents. There is already plentiful data showing driver distraction is a key factor in a significant percentage of highway wrecks. Simple common sense suggests that the LED billboards are even more distracting and will lead to more accidents, said Scenic America president Kevin Fry.

There’s not a big chance that the digital signs will appear along I-70 in Summit County anytime soon, but the issue is on the radar screen for the Colorado Department of Transportation, said spokesperson Stacey Stegman.

State law allows the digital displays. But CDOT would have to develop a set of rules to show that safety and aesthetic factors have been considered before any of the digital signs could be put up.

Stegman said local jurisdictions also have a significant say in whether digital billboards are permitted in a specific jurisdictions. That would include Summit County’s towns with I-70 frontage, as well as the U.S. Forest Service.

Based on the growing popularity of digital billboards, CDOT will tackle the rule-making at some point in the foreseeable future, Stegman said.

“We would be very conservative, based on safety concerns,” she said.

Golimowski said the OAAA is willing to work in partnership with the government to establish a reasonable policy for digital billboards. But the American Planning Association and the National League of Cities have publicly accused the billboard industry of using aggressive legal tactics to fight against billboard regulations.

According to the New York Times, there were about 100 billboard-related cases heard in the federal court system in the past seven years, triple the amount between 1993 and 2000. Digital billboards could be the next big legal battleground, according to the American Planning Association.

The question of whether digital billboards lead to more accidents was raised by a group called Scenic America in early October, after the FHWA circulated an internal memo nationwide.

The memo essentially green-lights the digital billboards, stating the federal government has no conclusive reason to forbid the new signs. Despite the claims by Scenic America, there’s no evidence showing that digital billboards lead to more accidents, said FHWA spokesman Doug Hecox.

But there is enough concern and public awareness to justify a thorough study, he said.

“Government rules are always chasing the private sector,” Hecox said.

Scenic America president Kevin Fry said it’s simply a matter of common sense that flashier signs with changing messages will distract drivers more.

“This policy is backwards and extremely irresponsible. Why is the federal government allowing a potentially dangerous device to go up without knowing whether it poses a hazard to the American people,” Fry said. “Obviously, there is some doubt about safety or the government wouldn’t be spending money to study the issue,” he said, referring to the upcoming FHWA study. “You’d think that, given the problems the government already has with the safety of our infrastructure they wouldn’t be looking for ways to add dangerous distractions to our overcrowded and congested highways.”

According to Scenic America, the signs are extraordinarily bright, especially at night, when they dominate a driver’s field of vision and cause inadvertent and instinctual glances. The changing images cause many motorists to look at the signs long enough to see what comes up next in the rotation, the nonprofit group claims.

Fry said a 2006 study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration shows that anything that distracts drivers more than two seconds significantly increases the chance for wrecks.

“I have yet to get an explanation from anyone about how a digital billboard can simultaneously be safe for drivers and an effective advertising medium.” Fry said. “The FHWA has completely abandoned the law, science, common sense and public sentiment and told American motorists that their safety is secondary to the interests of the giant media companies that dominate outdoor advertising.”

Golimowski said there are a few specific studies showing that digital billboards are safety neutral. Those studies tracked traffic accidents in the vicinity of digital billboards, showing no increase in the number of accidents, he said.

But those studies were sponsored by the outdoor advertising group. An independent researcher who formerly headed an FHWA research lab said those industry backed studies are flawed and shouldn’t be used as a basis for public policy.

“There’s a lot of money behind this,” the FHWA’s Hecox said, acknowledging that the outdoor advertising industry is very interested in working with the government to establish a regulatory framework that gives the industry some assurances for the future.

That’s why the federal government is embarking on its study, with results due in 2009.

“We want to make some statement as to whether they are distracting or not,” Hecox said. “We are officially looking into it.”

According to the outdoor advertising industry, growth in the digital billboard sector has been slowed in part by the uncertain regulatory climate, and also by the high cost of the signs. Each one cost upward of a quarter million dollars, he said.

The digital billboards represent a great value to the ad industry. Each sign can be used by multiple advertisers, and messages can be designed to target different audiences at different times. He said Colorado’s ski industry is an example of how advertisers can use the digital medium to tailor messages by offering instantaneous updates on snow conditions, for example.

Golimowski said there’s no scientific basis for Scenic America’s safety concerns, and that the group is using the safety issue as a tool to advance its fundamental anti-billboard agenda.

“They think all billboards are bad,” Golimowski said.

Federal rules governing highway advertising haven’t kept up with changing technology, he said. The planned FHA study could provide the information needed to update rules concerning flashing and intermittent signs, he explained.

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