Commentary: Studies confirm safety of digital billboards

By Darrin Friskney Director, Watchfire Digital Outdoor

Since digital billboards came on the outdoor advertising scene a few years ago, questions about driver safety have been circulating, along with misinformed answers.

The truth is large quantities of data that show digital billboards are safe.

In 2007, state officials from South Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia said the rate of accidents did not increase in proximity to digital billboards, a finding echoed by local officials in El Paso, Texas, Rochester, Minn., and elsewhere.

The outdoor-advertising industry began analyzing accident records in 2007. This pioneering research, conducted in Cleveland, showed no significant statistical relationship between digital billboards and accidents.

Some argued that Cleveland was just one market and all the digital billboards in the study were bulletin-size boards located on an interstate highway. In 2009 and 2010, five studies were conducted using in-depth data that spanned years. The studies looked at more than 160,000 accident records in proximity to 69 digital billboard faces. The billboard sizes varied and the locations included interstates, expressways and local roads. The combined traffic counts in these studies exceed one-half billion cars per year. In all five of the studies, there was no statistically significant relationship between accidents and digital billboards:

  • Cuyahoga County, Ohio (2007 and 2009): Looked at accident reports four years before and after installation of digital billboards, including seven digital billboards along interstates and more than 60,000 accident reports.
  • Rochester, Minn. (2009): Looked at accident reports more than four years before and after installation of digital billboards, including five digital billboards along local roads and 18,000 accident records.
  • Albuquerque, N.M. (2010): Looked at accident reports spanning three and one-half years before and after installation of digital billboards, including 17 digital billboards located along local roads and more than 7,000 accident records.
  • Reading, Pa. (2010): Looked at accident reports four years before and after installation of digital billboards, including 26 digital billboard faces on 20 structures along both expressways and local roads and 35,000 accident records.
  • Richmond, Va. (2010): Looked at accident reports spanning seven years before and after installation of 14 digital billboard faces on 10 structures along interstates and local roads and 40,000 accidents.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, traffic accident data is a valued, standard tool for policy makers, as traffic records are the basis for defining, managing and evaluating traffic safety and performance.

These studies also showed that the age of the driver and the time of the day were not factors. Drivers under the age of 21, older drivers over 65 and nighttime drivers showed no increases in accident rates.

In addition to these studies, the Federal Highway Administration is studying digital billboards and traffic safety. Its report, which is expected soon, is based on the frequency and duration of eye glances of drivers in Reading, Pa., and Richmond, Va. In these studies, the FHWA records eye glances of 58 drivers in vehicles with special instrumentation to determine how often drivers glance at billboards and the duration of the glance.

It’s important to point out that while the government studies the safety of digital billboards, various government organizations regularly use digital billboards for public safety:

  • Since the summer of 2010, the Federal Bureau of Investigation started sending alerts nationwide on digital billboards, beginning with a nationwide alert from the FBI as part of a manhunt for a suspected serial bank robber. The suspect was arrested nine days later.
  • In April 2010, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood unveiled a pilot program to crack down on distracted driving in Syracuse, N.Y., and Hartford, Conn. Aimed at curbing cell phone use while driving, government-sponsored antidistraction messages appeared on digital billboards in the Hartford area.
  • The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children has transmitted more than 450 AMBER Alerts via digital billboards since June of 2008. Building on this success, Silver Alerts are now using digital billboards to locate missing seniors suffering from dementia.
  • The FBI refers to digital billboards as “force multipliers,” and Congressman John J. Duncan of Tennessee applauded the use of digital billboards by law enforcement.

With no impact on traffic accident rates and the public safety value of digital billboards, it’s easy to see why digital billboards have proven to be a welcome addition to cities and towns across the country.

Thanks to the Outdoor Advertising Association of American for their assistance with this article.

Darrin Friskney is director of Watchfire Digital Outdoor. He can be reached at darrin.friskney@watchfiresigns.com.

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