Connecticut Lawmakers Consider Changes to Digital Billboards
Officials worry about distracting drivers with electronic billboard messages
By Gregory B. Hladky
April 30, 2013
Our public bureaucrats don’t normally pay much attention to matters involving seconds. (At least, not when you’re standing in line at the DMV or waiting for your income tax refund check to arrive.)
There is one area, however, where state and federal experts seem to think two seconds can make a difference, and that’s in electronic billboard advertising.
The numbers of those digital billboards have exploded in recent years and now more than 4,000 of those bad boys are now flashing their “come hither” and “buy this now” messages across the U.S. (There are only about 20 in Connecticut at the moment, but that seems likely to change in the future.)
They’ve also become the focus of local and national complaints about light pollution, and the uglification of America. At the same time, these New Age ad vehicles have drawn praise from law enforcement types for their assistance in hunting down evil-doers like the Boston bombers.
Those two seconds that have attracted the attention of federal and state officials concern the issue of whether these things flashing multiple ads all the time have become safety hazards by distracting drivers.
Connecticut lawmakers are right now considering an earth-shaking piece of legislation that would increase from six seconds to eight seconds the time an individual ad has to stay up on one of those digital screens along our highways.
Apparently, according to the Federal Highway Administration, changing those ads quicker than every eight seconds could be a dangerous distraction for drivers.
“We concur with that,” says Kevin Nursick, a spokesman for the Connecticut Department of Transportation. “Six seconds is a little too frequent in terms of distractions.”
Max Ashburn of the non-profit group Scenic America scoffs at the idea that this sort of change could make any difference whatsoever.
“The difference between six seconds and eight seconds seems to be negligible,” says Ashburn, a spokesman for this non-profit organization opposed to the proliferation of electronic billboards. “Why not make it six minutes or six hours?”
In January, Scenic America filed a federal lawsuit charging the U.S. government with violating the Highway Beautification Act by letting these electronic ad devices to spring up all along federal highways.
The lawsuit charges that a 2007 change in Federal Highway Administration guidelines for electronic signs ignores the federal law’s protections against “intermittent commercial message lighting” along our interstates. Ashburn says the “Highway Beautification Act has now become “essentially a billboard protection act.”
“These billboards devalue private property, distract drivers, tarnish the beauty of our natural and built landscapes and negatively impact the quality of life for many people,” Mary Tracy, Scenic America’s president, said in a statement at the time the lawsuit was filed. Her organization wants to limit electronic billboards to a single message per day – something the ad industry is fighting like hell.
Connecticut’s digital billboard babies are right now blinking out their LED ads along I-91, I-84 and I-91, outside Hartford, New Haven, Bridgeport, and down through Fairfield County. At present, those electronic signs represent a tiny proportion of the approximately 1,200 billboards that have permits from the DOT, but most ad experts expect that electronics are the wave of our billboarding future.
Billboards as visual commercial pollution have been controversial for a long time. Alaska, Maine, Vermont, Hawaii all have longstanding billboard bans. Montana has a moratorium on electronic billboards, according to Scenic America, and there are local bans in cities and towns from Los Angeles to Houston to Baltimore.
When M. Jodi Rell was governor of Connecticut in 2008, she wanted to get rid of all highway billboards in this state as being downright ugly. She had to settle for an executive order requiring the state to get rid of all billboards on state property.
The only problem was there are only 100 or so of the signs on state land, mainly along the rail corridors, and most of those have leasing agreements that won’t run out until 2014 or 2016, DOT officials say.
A few signs, the ones that had contracts that were up for renewal or cancellation, have been moved off state property.
“It didn’t make a lot of sense to us,” says Stephen Hebert of the Connecticut branch of Lamar Advertising Company, one of the nation’s biggest billboard outfits, “but we complied.”
Hebert says his company got funding from the DOT to move one of its signs from state land to nearby private property. “So the state lost the lease revenue and we got paid to move it,” adds Hebert with a shrug.
It was Hebert’s company that put up Connecticut’s first electronic billboard in 2005, and Lamar now has 17 of this state’s 20 digital ad structures.
He says the company now has a policy of leaving ads up on these billboards for about 10 seconds before rotating the next ad up for display.
“So we’re supporting it,” Hebert says of the pending legislation to increase Connecticut’s minimum digital billboard ad time from six to eight seconds. That doesn’t mean he thinks it’s going to make any difference in driver safety.
“There have been a multitude of research studies done on distracted driving,” Hebert says, and that several of the reports on electronic billboards “have come in neutral” about their impact on drivers.
Hebert has his own theory, which is that “digital boards actually slow people down” as they drive past because they are looking at the messages. He admits he has no data to back that idea up, but it sure sounds good from an advertising dude’s point of view.
One aspect of digital billboards that have been in the news big time this month concerned the messages and warnings that law enforcement put up on the boards during the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing.
There were warnings for people to stay away from Copley Square, the scene of the bloody explosions. “Wanted” images with the picture of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who was on the run from police at the time, were flashed across the city.
Hebert says his company ran some Boston bombing related messages on its Connecticut boards as well.
“We do it for Amber Alerts,” he explains, saying the law enforcement messages about abducted or missing children are put up on digital billboards in this state and often kept up for three hours at a time.
He said his company’s boards have also been used for FBI wanted posters, such as the one for the so-called East Coast Rapist. Aaron Thomas was captured in 2011 and is now serving multiple life terms for at least six rapes that occurred in Connecticut and other coastal states over a 10-year span. Hebert believes the use of the electronic billboard images helped put the criminal in prison.
Ashburn doubts that the law enforcement’s use of electronic billboards has been as effective as some claim, and says the ad industry has been promoting that idea like crazy. “That’s certainly the line the industry is pushing,” Ashburn says.
He thinks the whole helping-law-enforcement thing is something the outdoor advertising industry is wants to highlight because it might counteract public unhappiness with the rapid spread of digital signage along the highways.
Says Ashburn, “They’re getting a lot of pushback from people and communities on these billboards.”