Fatal distraction

There would likely be some concern if vehicles were equipped with driver-side televisions. Obviously, watching TV would distract from keeping eyes on the road. That’s hard enough as we—and everyone on the road with us—juggle cell phones, text messages and radio knobs.

So why is it OK to watch what’s basically television—electronic or digital billboards—from the road? These billboards are just like regular billboards except they use digital images, bright lights and change their advertisements every few seconds. In Nevada, they’re primarily used by casinos. (The Vegas Strip was one of the first places in the United States to use them.)

The Grand Sierra Resort, for example, features a prominent digital billboard between the resort and highway 395. Its images change every five seconds to publicize GSR’s latest act or restaurant or lucky winner. (And yes, this editorial writer almost rear-ended someone while conducting this informal research.) It also happens to be located at one of the busiest, more confusing, northbound sections of 395 in Reno, with cars coming in from the Mill Street ramp and merging from all lanes onto the I-80 Sparks-Reno onramp. On South Virginia Street, the intersections are less busy and the speed limit slower. There, electronic billboards also distract drivers passing the Peppermill and Atlantis casinos, where a new advertisement is displayed roughly every 10 seconds, with constantly moving images like television.

We have no doubt electronic billboards work for advertisers. According to outdoor advertising firm BPS Outdoor, electronic billboards are six times more effective at reaching their targeted audience than traditional billboards. Research has shown that 94 percent of people passing an electronic billboard recall its message compared to 43 percent recall with non-moving boards.

However, a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration study in 2006 found that eyes-off-road durations of longer than two seconds significantly increased near-crash/crash risk. A Wisconsin study found that two sections of I-94 experienced increased crash rates of 21 and 36 percent after the installation of electronic billboards. But there have been few and mostly inconclusive studies regarding driver distraction and electronic billboards. The Federal Highway Administration has taken a neutral stance on them, leaving it up to individual states to decide how to use them. Some states have banned their use; others have set restrictions, such as 8- or 10-second minimums between changing images.

Scenic Nevada, descendent of Citizens for a Scenic Reno, the group that spearheaded efforts to limit new billboards in the Truckee Meadows, has come out against the new billboards. “No means no,” a member wrote on July 2 in a guest comment in this newspaper, “They constitute new construction and, therefore, are not allowed by Question R-1, which reads as follows: ‘The construction of new off-premises advertising displays/billboards is prohibited, and the City of Reno may not issue permits for their construction.’”

Even without hard statistics addressing safety risks near digital billboard sites, it seems a no-brainer that these boards are an unnecessary distraction for drivers. As people debate to what extent they distract drivers, we must remember they are specifically designed to distract drivers. Their whole point is to make drivers pause, pay attention to them, and come inside the casinos’ doors. We know everyone is trying to make a buck, but it shouldn’t be at the expense of public safety.