Digital billboards attract scrutiny

November 30, 2009
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LANSING — Drivers might not see many new glowing digital billboards along Michigan highways for a while.

Rep. Rebekah Warren, D-Ann Arbor, has introduced a bill to establish a two-year moratorium on new digital billboards until a federal analysis is completed and safety recommendations are issued by the end of 2011.

Under the proposal, the state would issue no permits for new digital billboards or conversion of existing static billboards to ones with moving animation or flashing lights until Jan. 1, 2012. It would allow existing electronic billboards to remain in use.

Controversy over billboards and driver safety started after a 1951 Minnesota Highways Department study reported that an increase in billboards would boost the crash rate. Other studies have reached different conclusions. For example, the Michigan Highway Department found in 1952 that signs don’t correlate with the number of crashes.

Distracted driving is a subject of growing concern among federal and state agencies, including the U.S. Department of Transportation. However, it’s still uncertain whether there’s a correlation between attention-grabbing digital billboards and traffic safety.

There are two popular types of billboards: traditional and digital. A main difference has to do with shared space, according to EMC Outdoor, a Pennsylvania-based advertising agency. For example, digital billboards let advertisers share their space with others as ads are displayed in sequence for six to eight seconds each. But there is only one advertiser on traditional billboards for an entire display period.

A Federal Highway Administration study is underway to explore that safety question, said Hugh McDiarmid, communications director of the Michigan Environmental Council. The study focuses on the effects of digital billboards on driver behavior and evaluation of their potential risk.

Scenic Michigan, a Petoskey-based environmental coalition, said the federal study could lead to guidelines, regulatory changes or legislative proposals. “It’ll show how often messages on digital billboards should change — every six seconds, eight seconds or 10,” said McDiarmid, a member of the coalition’s board.

Currently, there are about 16,000 billboards along Michigan highways, said Abby Dart, executive director of Scenic Michigan. “It’s second only to Florida in the number of billboards in America.”

Peter Steketee of Grand Rapids, a Scenic Michigan board member, said billboards detract from tourism, Michigan’s second-largest industry. “They’re ugly,” he said. “Although the number is now capped, there are still too many of them.”

Michigan is in a serious economic slump, but tourism could be a bright spot in the economy, Steketee said. “Nobody takes a drive to view billboards along the highway, and many people detest them and go where they are not.”

Steketee said digital billboards are much more distracting and thus more dangerous to drivers than traditional ones. “They are just starting to go up across the state, but this process should be stopped.”

However, Rick Imshaug, owner of Skyline Outdoor Advertising in Okemos, said there’s no safety hazard from digital billboards.

“Not at all,” said Imshaug. “Drivers are trained to look at signs. It’s not like texting or looking at an iPod, which can pose a safety hazard. They routinely look at billboards through the windshield.”

Anne Readett, communications manager for the Office of Highway Safety Planning, said her agency has not focused on billboards and any role they may play in traffic crashes.

But Skyline’s Imshaug said the temporary ban would hurt the proposed industry and is unnecessary. “I don’t think there are too many billboards along highways. They’re in some places but not generally. I believe the state has tons of other problems to deal with.”

A poll by Lansing-based EPIC-MRA showed that by a 2-to-1 ratio, state residents support a moratorium on digital billboards. Seventy percent of those responding to the survey voiced “strong support.”

The bill’s co-sponsors are Democratic Reps. Daniel Scripps of Leland; Joan Bauer of Lansing; Robert Jones of Kalamazoo; Alma Wheeler Smith of Salem Township; Deb Kennedy of Brownstown; Sarah Roberts of St. Clair Shores; Gary McDowell of Rudyard; Mary Valentine of Muskegon; Gino Polidori of Dearborn; and Bob Constan of Dearborn Heights.

The bill is pending in the House Great Lakes and Environment Committee.

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