Study calls digital billboards distracting

akelley@thesunnews.com, mlucas@thestate.comJanuary 14, 2013 

— In 2010, Myrtle Beach City Council approved digital billboards, and Councilman Phil Render cast the only dissenting vote, suggesting the billboards could distract motorists.

Though he said he’s less apprehensive about the potential safety risks today, a recent study, suggests Render’s concerns may have been accurate.

The 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.

It comes down to the amount of signage for Render.

“I’m probably less concerned about the digital billboard now than I was initially as long as they’re properly spaced,” he said. “If you had 10 in a block that would be terrible. They certainly can be a cleaner, more aesthetic and a lot of times clearer form of advertising.”

When Myrtle Beach approved the digital signs, City Council did not authorize the construction of new signs. Instead, the city requires a digital sign replace two – or three depending on the location – conventional billboards, said city spokesman Mark Kruea.

Render said the replacement rule is a good thing that will prevent oversaturation of the boards in the city.

Since 2010, 21 of the old billboards have been removed and replaced by six digital billboards, he said.

In addition to the conversion rule, Myrtle Beach limits the “dwell time” and the brightnesson each. Each sign must have a dwell time of at least eight seconds, meaning the signs cannot change faster than every eight seconds.

At night, the boards must automatically dim to one-tenth of their daytime brightness, Kruea said.

Capt. David Knipes, with Myrtle Beach police, said it’s possible the billboards are distracting, but said he’s never heard a driver claim they had been looking at a billboard immediately before a crash.

Horry County police do not investigate traffic accidents. Still, Sgt. Robert Kegler said there haven’t been any complaints to the department about billboards, digital or otherwise.

Animated digital billboards are not allowed in North Myrtle Beach, said city spokesman Pat Dowling, though digital billboards with content that stays static for at least 60 seconds are allowed.

Render’s concern now is that the signs may indirectly encourage texting while driving.

“I hope it doesn’t desensitize young people to text more,” he said. “The electronic-macro environment in which we live, I think that constant exposure may desensitize young drivers into being less cautious drivers.”

Jackie Prueitt, along with other concerned residents, fought a losing battle against digital billboards in Richland County a year before Myrtle Beach approved the measure.

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.

Similar to Myrtle Beach, Richland County requires the digital billboards replace established ones.

Prueitt feels vindicated by the study’s findings.

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

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 said they hope city and county leaders will look again at the issue.

Currently, the planning commission subcommittee in Myrtle Beach is looking at changeable variable electronic messaging systems (CEVMS), which are used by the S.C. Department of Transportation signs warning drivers about traffic incidents. The CEVMS signs wouldn’t be billboards, rather regular signage with changeable copy. The committee, Kruea said, is looking at how many colors and what colors would be allowed and the dwell rate. A recommendation on the dwell rate could be made as early as this week, he said.

Setting their visual unsightliness aside, Nevius says the flashing billboards come down to safety. But Scott Shockley, vice president for Lamar Advertising, the city of Columbia’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.

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.

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