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Opponents Sue to Stem Onrush of Flashing Digital Billboards

Neal Peirce / Jun 07 2013

Hardly a Driver
Is Now Alive
Who Passed On Hills
At 75
Burma-Shave

For Release Sunday, June 9, 2013
© 2013 Washington Post Writers Group

Neal PeirceOnce upon a time, advertising in America was fun. As a boy, I didn’t want to miss the Burma Shave jingles – one line per sign in a quick roadside series – as my father took me on my first drive across America.

Today it’s different. Massive, glaring, digital billboards, commandeering attention as they flash new messages every few seconds, are proliferating across most states.

Around 2005, the first appeared. By 2008, there were 1,800. Last year there were 3,600, and this year the figure is likely to be close to 5,000. The industry (some 250 independent contractors) is licking its chops. It reports the cost of new boards is dropping rapidly, the “dynamic new content” allegedly outperforms television, radio and newspaper ads, and there’s “an increasingly favorable regulatory environment” – states and cities agreeing to the signs.

Unless, of course, regulations strike back. That’s precisely what Scenic America, a nonprofit public interest group, is trying to force. It has sued in federal court to force the Federal Highway Administration (FHA) to clamp down, to reverse its 2007 ruling that permitted the garish signs as long as they don’t flash new images more frequently than every four seconds.

The FHA, says Scenic America, invented the four-second rule out of thin air without hearings or regular procedures. Specifically, it says the new rules violate the Highway Beautification Act of 1965. That law, written in the pre-digital age, sought to limit signs and displays on federal highways by requiring federal agreements with the states to codify rules. The accord which emerged typically prohibited “signs which contain, include, or are illuminated by any flashing, intermittent, or moving light … except those giving public service information such as time, date, temperature (or) weather.”

With four-second bright electronic imagery, Scenic America claims, digital signs are indeed “flashing,” “intermittent” and “moving.”

Beyond that, it says the FHA has brushed past the safety issues – drivers distracted by the brightly lit, constantly changing mega-signboards. It cites an array of studies – by the Swedish government, researchers in Israel, the Dutch highway authority and Norwegian analysts. All suggest the flashing billboards draw viewers’ attention for longer periods of time than standard signs and may in fact trigger more crashes.

Indeed, it’s fair to ask: How can the FHA have opened the door to these diverting digital eye-catchers without making its own scientific tests – as Israel and Sweden have (deciding in each case to ban the signs)?

There have been no nationwide U.S. surveys to gauge Americans’ opinion of the digital boards. But there’s little question that in communities where citizens have a strong voice, opposition is high. And it’s especially vociferous when the signs invade populated areas, flashing through peoples’ bedroom windows.

Local governments, however, find themselves under big pressure to give in. And the pressure is from two sides: the billboard lobby – seeing dollars dance before its eyes at every advance – and from local politicians in search of municipal revenue (and sometimes in search of campaign contributions).

In cash-strapped Chicago, for example, Mayor Rahm Emanuel is seeking state permission to erect 34 double-sided digital billboards, up to 100 feet high, on city property. In exchange, the city will get $155 million in payments over 20 years. Five companies bid for the billboard agreement. The winner, the Chicago Tribune reports, was a firm that coincidentally contributed $10,000 to Emanuel’s mayoral campaign.

Sometimes, Scenic America notes, billboard interests come to a city and ask for new digital boards in exchange for taking down a few traditional boards – notwithstanding citizens’ often fervid objections.

In other cases, a billboard firm just erects a digital sign – calculating that neither citizen groups nor the city government will have the cash, or the gumption, to launch expensive legal action to stop the incursion.

The billboard firms’ strongest argument may be that they’re willing to post flood, tornado, traffic hazard or other warnings on their fast digital signs. But aren’t such warnings fundamentally the responsibilities of state and local governments? Must drivers be watching private advertising billboards to catch critical emergency information?

Getting legal restrictions on highway billboards has never been easy. President Lyndon Johnson, in a recorded 1968 phone conversation with then-U.S. Rep. (and future Speaker) Jim Wright, let loose on the issue with his legendary bluntness. Legislation to strengthen the Highway Beautification Act, he asserted, was being blocked by “this damned billboard industry” – “selfish, eager hogs that won’t even let folks sit down and reason with them.”

Yet it was Johnson’s wife, the soft-spoken Lady Bird Johnson, who embodied the spirit of the Highway Beautification Act. She famously championed Americans’ right to have flower-lined highways of beauty, “not long alleys of advertisements urging you to buy this or that.”

Against powerful, well-healed adversaries, Scenic America and its local allies carry on the fight.


Neal Peirce’s e-mail is npeirce@citistates.com.

For reprints of Neal Peirce’s column, please contact Washington Post Permissions, c/o PARS International Corp., WPPermissions@parsintl.com, fax 212-221-9195. For newspaper syndication sales, Washington Post Writers Group, 202-334-5375, wpwgsales@washpost.com. (c) 2013, The Washington Post Writers Group

One Comment

  1. Arnold long
    Posted June 10, 2013 at 1:45 pm | Permalink

    This crazy idea that drivers can be safely distracted is dangerous. It’s simply electronic graffiti. Only important messages such as “road closure/ accident ahead” should be allowed to displayed. Also some flashing lights / rapidly changing lights (flickering) can trigger epileptic fits.
    Sadly this is yet again a case of the lust for money destroying so many other aspects of life.