While digital billboards are popular with advertisers and outdoor ad companies, they’ve also attracted criticism for a range of reasons, including aesthetics and safety concerns, especially
the threat of distracted driving.
The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Highways Agency recently weighed in with a study suggesting that digital billboards result in
minimal distraction and are therefore basically safe -- but it’s unlikely the report will settle this contentious issue.
The FHWA study, titled “Driver Visual Behavior In
The Presence Of Commercial Electronic Variable Message Signs” and performed for the feds by Science Applications International Corporation, used eye-tracking technology to compare driver
attention in the presence of digital billboards compared to standard billboards.
According to SAIC, drivers were slightly more likely to look at digital billboards than standard
billboards, but for the most part didn’t look at either type of billboard for more than two seconds -- the minimum threshold for distracted driving.
The average dwell time for
digital billboards observed in two study areas (Richmond, VA, and Reading, PA) was about the same, at approximately one second, and there was only one instance of a dwell time exceeding two seconds
(2.27 seconds). Thus “the results did not provide evidence indicating that CEVMS were associated with long glances away from the road that may reflect an increase in risk.”
While the peer-reviewed study is encouraging for digital billboard supporters, the controversy will almost certainly continue. This is just the latest in a series of studies on the subject, dating
back to 2007. Some have been attacked for questionable conclusions. Indeed, expert reviewers told the FHWA that the results of an earlier study -- which seemed to find average dwell time of less a
tenth of a second -- were basically impossible, prompting the agency to withdraw the study for internal review