Digital Billboards: High-Tech Tools Or Driving Distractions?

March 24, 2010
Digital billboard

Digital billboard

Digital billboard in Minneapolis, Minnesota

Digital billboard in Minneapolis, Minnesota

Digital billboards are commonplace in many parts of America. Though expensive to install -- around $200,000 to $300,000 a pop -- they're a solid investment for media companies and advertisers alike, and they offer benefits for the community, too. But a number of citizen groups see digital billboards as driving distractions, and they've worked hard to ban or limit installations in cities and states across the U.S.

Some organizations like Scenic America try to limit all types of billboards, arguing that every one of them is an ugly scar on the otherwise pristine face of America. According to such groups, digital billboards are even worse than their analog cousins because they force additional distractions like bright lights and changing ads on attention-deficient drivers who are already juggling cell phones, satnavs, mascara, and happy meals. Advocates have worked to implement bans or moratoriums on digital billboards across entire states (e.g. Maine, Montana) and in specific municipalities (e.g. Houston, Denver, St. Louis).

On the other side of the debate, ad outlets like Clear Channel Outdoor  and Lamar Advertising insist that there's no relationship between digital billboards and auto accidents. And advertisers appreciate the high-tech displays because of the improved access they offer. With traditional billboards, advertisers have to fight for location and visibility; if the particular billboard location that a company wants is taken by someone else, said company has to devise a Plan B. But because digital billboards allow for multiple ads -- rotating their displays every four to ten seconds --  advertisers have better access to premium locations. That's good for business.

Our take? Well, we understand and appreciate both arguments, but we tend to come down on the side of the billboard owners.

First and foremost, print media is dying a slow death. That includes not just newspapers, magazines, but also billboards. An increasing number of ads are delivered digitally, via email, mobile device, and on the web; digital billboards are just another example of that phenomenon. With only about 1,800 in operation, digital units make up just .4% of the total number of billboards found on America's roadways, but their numbers are increasing exponentially, and there's no sign of that figure slowing.

Second, it's hard to make the argument that digital billboards are uglier than traditional ones. Digital signs, which typically depend on low-energy LED lights, are bright and crisp and always look the same; traditional signs, on the other hand, rip, tear, and fade, and they can be clumsy and dangerous to install. Furthermore, digital signs are cheaper to produce (no printing or installation involved), meaning that mom and pop companies on a limited budget can now include outdoor advertising on their list of options.

Third: digital billboards can be used to improve safety on roadways and to facilitate the flow of traffic, as demonstrated by the Minneapolis billboard (above) that ran after the tragic collapse of the I-35W Mississippi River Bridge.

That said, we take seriously the assertion that digital billboards are a distraction for drivers. Though no conclusive links have been found between digital billboards and auto accidents, the Federal Highway Administration is conducting a study on the topic as we speak. The agency hopes to wrap up the study this summer, and we look forward to reading the results.

Bottom line: like in-car internet, the digital billboard genie is out of the bottle, and the devices are almost certainly here to stay. Our job -- and yours, too -- is to make sure they're deployed in safe, effective, responsible ways.

[USAToday via KickingTires]

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