Study Finds Digital Billboards Distract Drivers

Published in the journal Traffic Injury Prevention, the study concludes these colorful, rapidly changing billboards attract and hold drivers gazes far longer than a threshold previous studies have shown to be dangerous.

Swedish and German researchers have published a study in the journal Traffic Injury Prevention in which they found digital billboards attract and hold drivers' gazes longer than a threshold that previous studies have shown to be dangerous. Conducted by researchers at the Swedish National Road and Transport Research Institute and funded by the Swedish Transport Administration, the study found that drivers looked at these colorful, rapidly changing billboards significantly longer than they do at other signs on the same stretch of road -- the digital versions often took a driver's eyes off the road for more than two seconds.

They said a well-regarded 2006 study by Virginia Tech for NHTSA found anything that takes a driver's eyes off the road for more than two seconds greatly increases the risk of a crash. That study found nearly 80 percent of all crashes involve driver inattention within three seconds of the crash.

"This study validates what is common sense when it comes to digital billboards," said Mary Tracy, president of Scenic America, a Washington, D.C. nonprofit organization advocating for preserving the visual character of America's communities and countryside. It contends billboards, badly sited telecommunications towers, overhead lines, and other visual clutter are obscuring scenic resources and hometown assets, and open space is being surrendered.

"Bright, constantly changing signs on the side of the road are meant to attract and keep the attention of drivers, and this study confirms that is exactly what they do," Tracy added.

Her organization's website applauded a Dec. 10 ruling by California's 2nd District Court of Appeal ordering more than 100 digital billboards in Los Angeles owned by Clear Channel and CBS to be removed. The court held that the city of Los Angeles had agreed to an illegal settlement when it allowed those companies to digitize some of their existing billboards even though a municipal ordinance prohibited "alterations or enlargements" of such signs.

The Swedish study's authors -– Tania Dukic, Christer Ahlstrom, Christopher Patten, and Carmen Kettwich of the Swedish National Road and Transport Research Institute and Katja Kircher of the Light Technology Institute at Karlsruhe Institute of Technology in Karlsruhe, Germany -- said it's not surprising that digital billboards attract more attention because they are brighter, visible from greater distances, and display a constantly changing series of advertisements. They concluded the billboards "have the potential ability to keep up the driver’s curiosity over an extended period of time."

The Swedish government temporarily authorized digital billboards in 2009 but has now ordered all that were erected to be removed, according to Scenic America, which reported the new study and two other recently completed studies of digital billboards will be presented Jan. 16 during the annual meeting of the Transportation Research Board in Washington, D.C.

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