The Digital Billboard Divide

Digital billboards have gained quite a bit of attention, literally and otherwise. The sharp images that change every 5-10 seconds allow outdoor advertisers to keep fresh messages in front of travelers. The novelty of digital billboards and the frequently changing images attract the eyes of drivers. The attention grabbing capability of billboards may be a plus for marketers, but it is a cause of concern for some local governments and advocacy groups. Digital billboard placement has been banned or limited in several markets across the country.

The debate about digital billboards is two-fold. One issue is rooted in aesthetics; some groups simply do not want the landscape dotted with flashy signs. The other issue is a more serious matter concerning the safety impact- are drivers more likely to be distracted if exposed to digital billboards compared to static billboards and all of the other stimuli that can get take our attention away from the road? The answer to this question is “it depends.” It depends on who you ask. Multiple studies conducted on behalf of the outdoor advertising industry have found no correlation between the presence of digital billboards and an increase in traffic accidents. Government sponsored research has been less conclusive, and others simply fan the debate with positions without objective evidence such as a St. Louis alderman who said “digital billboards are a distraction” as he pushed for the city to halt digital billboard placements.

It is possible that the real concern about digital billboards is that they will lead to further encroachment of commercialization into our lives. The safety argument is a convenient cloak to make a rational case for why they should be prohibited. Compelling arguments are made on both sides of the issue. The quality of digital billboards exceeds previous generations of signs, and certain situations may arise in which digital billboards can serve the public good such as posting information about a missing child. The debate will continue, but the question that must be answered to resolve this issue is whether the benefits of digital billboards outweigh any risks or problems they might create… if there are any risks or problems at all.

USA Today - "More Cities Ban Digital Billboards"
OAAA - "Engineer: Digital Billboards not Linked to Accidents"

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