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InTransition Magazine : Transportation Planning, Practice & Progress

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Signs of the Times

Digital Billboards Light Up Roadsides and Raise Revenue Potential, Safety Concerns

By Mark Solof

They’re bright, brash and get noticed. Digital billboards, using the LED flat-panel technology that has overtaken the home TV market, are showing up in growing numbers along many of the nation’s major highways.

Of 450,000 billboards nationwide, so far less than 2,000 are digital, according to the Outdoor Advertising Association of America. Yet many in the advertising industry see digital billboards as the hottest new growth market, next to the Internet. Improvements in technology jump-started the digital billboard market around 2005.

Clear Channel Outdoor

Digital billboards can carry messages from several

advertisers per day, making them far more lucrative

than static signs.

The attraction to the industry is understandable. While a traditional static billboard can generate rental income from one advertiser at a time, digital billboards can be rented to multiple advertisers over the course of a day, increasing revenue tenfold. On one digital sign along high-trafficked I-91 in Connecticut, a repeated eight-second ad costs $4,000 per month.

“If a restaurant is advertising breakfast in the morning, we could change the billboard signage later to reflect the lunch or dinner message,” said Mark Moyer, president of Fairway Outdoor Advertising in Augusta, Ga. “The advantage of this computer-controlled display is that it allows advertisers to change their messages as often as they like.”

Some advertising executives view the billboards similar to broadcasting, where premium rates can be charged for “primetime” ad slots. To prevent distraction to drivers, the electronic ads typically do not include moving images and switch only every 6-10 seconds.

Digital billboards are also becoming more attractive to governments looking for ways to cope with sagging budgets. The greater revenue generated by billboards can mean higher lease fees and tax ratables for local governments and toll road authorities which control roadside properties.

While federal law dating back to the Highway Beautification Act of 1965 has banned billboards along major highways, loopholes—including exemptions for commercial and industrial zones—and lack of funding for enforcement has led to a proliferation of signs in many states.

But opposition to the newfangled billboards has led to new bans and restrictions in some communities. One key source of opposition is residents who find the high visibility signs intrusive. “You can see that sign literally two miles away,” said one commenter at a Tampa City Council meeting quoted in the St. Petersburg Times about a sign on the outskirts of town. “It’s a very, very, very bright sign.”

Safety Research Varies

A more serious concern is safety—whether the signs increase accidents by diverting driver attention from the road. The small number of studies conducted has been inconclusive and there is little agreement on the methodologies that will best measure driver reactions.

National organizations and their local affiliates have weighed in. Advertising groups are touting a study released in April 2009 sponsored by the Foundation for Outdoor Advertising Research and Education which compared accident rates before and after signs were converted to digital. It found no statistical evidence that digital billboards are more dangerous to drivers than conventional printed outdoor advertising.

A digital billboard shines above a New Jersey highway at dusk,

while a traditional sign behind it appears less pronounced.

Mary Tracy, the acting president of the non-profit group Scenic America, dismisses this research as boosterism funded by proponents. She said that blinking lights that change every few seconds can be distracting to motorists, especially inexperienced drivers or senior citizens who may have natural difficulties on the roadway. Tracy also noted a human behavior study that found that the eyes tend to wait for a change, so if eyes are taken off the road to look at the alternating messages, the risk of a crash increases.

“I think we should be able to prove first that there is no danger,” Tracy said. “Outside the car, we should be doing everything we can to make the roadways as safe as we can,” she said, noting how the government has tried to control distractions inside a vehicle, such as using a handheld cell phone or texting while driving.

The lack of clarity of the safety issue has led some states and localities to impose moratoriums on new installations awaiting further research. Yet other communities, under the threat of litigation from billboard owners—and lured by potential revenues to be gained—have cleared the way for digital billboards with restrictions on placement, brightness, ad turnover and other variables.

Los Angeles officials, in the midst of a long-running dispute over aesthetics and safety of the signs, are considering a compromise that would “swap” one digital sign for a number of conventional signs. In St. Paul, an approved swap allowed one digital conversion in return for the removal of two traditional billboards.

Public transportation agencies are also forging ahead. The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Agency is auctioning off space for 60 new digital billboards along highways in eastern Massachusetts to raise much needed revenue to support the Boston-area bus and train network it operates. The signs, expected to raise $6 million per year, are being challenged by some communities and in the state legislature.

Many communities and state officials are looking for guidance from the federal government. The Federal Highway administration in 2007 issued interim guidance on making the digital signs conform to existing federal laws on billboards. It launched further studies on their safety.

In February 2009, one of the initial FHWA studies recommended a methodology for gauging driver distraction. It called for an “on-road instrumented vehicle study” which would identify changes in driving behavior at and around billboard sites with on-board measurement devices in the cars of volunteers.

Jerry Wachtel, president of the Veridian Group, a Berkeley, Calif.-based traffic safety research firm, who was a principal researcher for the FHWA, said this detailed behavioral study was much needed. He said that industry studies finding little or no crash data related to the signs did not necessarily mean an absence of danger.

“The reason there is no data isn’t because there are no accidents,” he said. “The reason there is no data is because the ability to collect accident data is very weak.”

A study on digital billboards was also released earlier this year by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) and the National Cooperative Highway Research Program (NCHRP). Wachtel, who served as a consultant on the study, said it found evidence from previous research over the last two decades that if a driver’s eyes leave the road for over 1.6 seconds the risk of a crash significantly increases. Digital billboards, the study concluded, tend to capture driver attention for longer than conventional billboards and often for well more than 1.6 seconds.

One of the past studies reviewed pointed to a possible “moth effect” in which drivers not only look in the direction of a bright light source on the side of the road, but inadvertently steer in that direction as well, affecting their lane maintenance.

Despite preliminary evidence of possible hazards posed by the new signs, Wachtel is not an opponent of digital advertising. “These signs are perfectly fine, provided they comply with the existing regulations of traditional billboards,” he said. That, he said, includes insuring that their brightness is equivalent to that of traditional floodlit billboards, and that the changing cycle of the messages is limited so that a driver does not see the sign change more than once.

As the research and debate continues, states have eyed creative approaches to raising funding through new digital billboard advertising. In an October 2008 letter to the U.S. Department of Transportation, California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) Director Will Kempton asked to allow California to convert the state’s 692 traffic alert and messaging signs to “state-of-the-art technology” so they can be leased for displaying rotating ads when not in use for traffic information. There has been no response from the USDOT, which repeatedly in the past has ruled against the expansion of roadside advertising.

If the USDOT changes its stance, the digital advertising industry no doubt would be eager to partner with state government in placing ads in prime traffic locations. Billboard owners now cooperate with government in displaying occasional public service ads. One major owner, Clear Channel Outdoor, provides free public service ads to the FBI for displaying “wanted” mug shots, resulting in the apprehension of several criminals around the country.

While the recession has led to a decline in all types of advertising, the outdoor advertising sector by some estimates has held up better than other sectors in part due to the growth of digital signs. Once the economy improves, hundreds of new or converted digital billboards are expected to be installed each year. Like digital billboards themselves, the future of the digital billboard industry appears bright.

— Mark Solof is director, public affairs, at the NJTPA. New Jersey-based freelance writer Jennifer Amato contributed to this story.

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