Texting While Driving is Dangerous: What About Looking at a Digital Billboard?

How many seconds does a driver need to get the information on this billboard?  How many seconds does it take to send this text message?

How many seconds does it take to get the information on this billboard? How many seconds does it take to send this text message?

Last week, the consistently excellent KCET series, SoCal Connected, aired a piece about texting while driving, showing how driver distraction can cause dangerous lags in reaction times.  So what about drivers taking their eyes off the road to read the messages on digital billboards?

According to a 2006 study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which recorded the eye movements of drivers in cars equipped with video cameras and other scientific instruments, looking away from the roadway for more than two seconds significantly increased the danger of unsafe driving and possible accidents.  Contrast that to promotional material from billboard giant Clear Channel Outdoor,  which advises billboard advertisers to tailor their copy to be assimilated by drivers in five seconds.  To quote:  “A good test is to show the design to someone from a distance for only 5 seconds and then ask them about it.   Did they understand it? Who was the advertiser? What do they think the advertiser wants them to do?”

So what’s it like to look away from the roadway for 5 seconds while you’re driving on a busy street or freeway?  We don’t advise trying it, but we can say that at 30 miles an hour you’ll cover 220 ft., or somewhere around 1/3 of an average city block in Los Angeles.

On the freeway, at 60 miles an hour, you’ll cover twice that distance.  Plenty of time to smash into a car or something else you didn’t see slowed down or stopped in front of you.

The outdoor advertising industry doesn’t want to acknowledge any of this.  Instead, they repeatedly cite studies that “prove” that there isn’t any correlation between digital billboards and traffic accidents.  What they don’t say is that the studies in question were commissioned by the Outdoor Advertising Association of America, and their methodology has been thoroughly debunked by independent analysts.

Why would an industry operating in nearly every city and state in the country deliberately ignore and obfuscate critical safety concerns? The answer, of course, is obvious, and depressingly familiar.   Billboards, and in particular, digital billboards, are big moneymakers, and in some people’s minds, that is the only concern.

Dennis Hathaway

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