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January 10, 2013

New study says digital billboards distracting to drivers

Examples of area digital billboards

In 2009, when Richland County began entertaining the idea of allowing digital billboards that flash ads every few seconds to replace older ones, Jackie Prueitt, along with other concerned residents, fought the idea.

Not only does Prueitt think the boards are unsightly, adding to the visual clutter of the city’s skyline, she thinks they are distracting as well.

But the movement against them failed, and Richland County, which had banned the billboards in 2001, allowed them on one condition: They had to replace already established billboards.

Now that a recent study has come out showing that digital billboards are distracting, Prueitt feels vindicated.

“I’m pleased, but not surprised,” she says.

The new study, conducted by Swedish and German researchers and expected to be published by the journal Traffic Injury Prevention, found that drivers looked at the colorful, rapidly changing billboards significantly longer than they do at other signs on the same stretch of road. The digital versions often took a driver’s eyes off the road for more than two seconds.

The study pointed to a well-regarded Virginia Tech study published in 2006 that found anything that takes a driver’s eyes off the road for longer than two seconds increases risks of a crash. The study went on to show that nearly 80 percent of all crashes involve driver inattention within three seconds of the crash.

The study will be presented to a national transportation conference in Washington, D.C., later this month.

Prueitt, along with Ryan Nevius, who also fought against digital billboards and is now with Sustainable Midlands, said for years they had read other studies that showed drivers were distracted by the flashing boards.

Both Nevius and Prueitt hope city and county council leaders will take a second look at the issue.

Both the county and the city of Columbia allow them. So do Lexington County and state government, so the signs show up on major highways. The town of Lexington has banned them, and Irmo has put restrictions on them as well. None of the governments could say immediately how many digital billboards there are in the Midlands.

“They are creeping in everywhere,” Nevius said. “We are going to look like Las Vegas, and is that what we want? Is this what we want our city and neighborhoods to look like?”

Setting their visual unsightliness aside, Nevius says the flashing billboards still come down to safety. But Scott Shockley, vice president for Lamar Advertising, the city’s largest sign company, says he doesn’t think the billboards are dangerous.

“They attract eyeballs but not at a dangerous level,” he said.

Shockley had his own studies that show the boards are safe – a hint of the “battle of studies” that could be coming soon.

While the economy had originally affected the demand for the flashing boards, that is starting to change, Shockley said. About a year after the county changed its ordinance allowing digital in, the company had 17 digital billboards.

Now, Lamar has 25 digital signs in the Midlands, including one on Blossom Street east of Huger Street and one in Five Points at Gervais and Harden streets.

Shockley said the ability to change the message on the boards almost instantly has made them appealing to customers.

“They’re very nimble, and that’s important to clients in this environment,” he said. “They want to stay ahead of their competition.”

Hal Stevenson with Grace Outdoor Advertising said his clients, too, are looking for flexibility and are increasingly interested in the digital signs. He said his company has seven of them in the Midlands.

Businesses and organizations aren’t the only ones drawn to the signs. The boards have been used by law enforcement to catch criminals and to send out Amber Alerts for missing children.

“We have found that billboards have been very effective in solving crime and capturing criminals,” Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott said. The department has used the boards and says they have not had an incident reported where a billboard has distracted or caused an accident, unlike those where texting and driving have.

Nevertheless, Shockley says he’s in the business to “attract eyeballs.”

But Prueitt and Nevius say they have the answer to that.

“I personally look for businesses who are advertising on them so I can tell them it’s a dangerous way to advertise,” Nevius said.

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