Dim your sign, please
Municipalities across the country are reviewing their sign regulations as technology redefines the appearance of billboards and other roadside displays. Many officials are concerned that the bright, constantly changing messages on the latest generation of digital signs may distract and endanger drivers.
Of 450,000 billboards nationwide, about 1,500 are digital, according to Outdoor Advertising Association of America spokesperson Jeff Golimowski. Digital billboards can display several ads each minute and have the potential to display animated messages. Research on how the signs affect driving behavior is conflicting, and the Federal Highway Administration is expected to finish a study on the signs later this year.
Richland County, S.C., leaders are concerned about brightness, safety and other issues raised by the new displays. “This is a new phenomenon for us,” says County Administrator Milton Pope. Columbia, the county’s largest city, permits some electronic signs, and Baton Rouge, La.-based outdoor advertising company Lamar recently asked the county to review its moratorium on new billboards.
In Fargo, N.D., discussions about smaller, on-premise signs came to a head in May after a business applied to build a large electronic display near a residential area. At that time, regulations treated the electronic signs the same as their backlit counterparts, so the city council instituted a moratorium on new digital signs until it could consider the matter further. The ordinance was later amended to prohibit electronic business signs within 150 feet of residential zones. Now, Fargo joins more than a dozen other municipalities in overhauling its sign regulations to address digital displays.
Senior Planner Jim Hinderaker, who has helped guide the city’s discussion on design standards and sign rules, has some basic advice for cities doing the same. “Keep it simple,” he says. The legislation is easier to manage if the signs are clearly allowed or prohibited in certain areas, instead of creating exceptions for different situations, he says.
Peter Barnes is a Houston-based freelance writer.
The Washington-based Outdoor Advertising Association of America has conducted two studies on whether digital signs contribute to traffic accidents, one in Cleveland two years ago and another in Rochester, N.Y., the results of which were released in April. The Rochester study, which surveyed data from 18,000 traffic accidents over a five-year period, found that, not only was there no correlation between the signs and the accidents, traffic accidents decreased by 0.4 percent within a half-mile radius of the signs.