Kelly Scott Madison

Do Digital Billboards Cause Traffic Accidents?



Due to the concern that digital billboards might be correlated to an increase in traffic accidents and overall safety concerns, KSM conducted an investigation into the facts surrounding this subject. Our findings are as follows:

Billboard History:

The first traditional billboard ever used in the United States can be traced back to Jared Bell who utilized a board of his own creation in order to promote circuses in New York City. Bell and others went on to utilize billboards over the next 30 years when, in 1867, the first known billboard rental was ever recorded. It was another 30 years before a standardized structure was created for billboards to be used across all states. The first advertisers to utilize this on a national scale were Coca Cola, Palmolive and Kellogg.

As time went on and the automotive car industry began to take off and gave way to the need for highways, billboard advertising continued to grow. In 1958 the first ever government legislation was created and passed to try and control billboard placements. Known as the Bonus Act, states were given bonus percentages of Federal Highway Funds based on the regulation and maintenance of billboards that fell within 660ft from the highways. In 1965, however, this law was replaced with the Highway Beautification Act. Initially this Act would penalize any state at 100 percent of their Federal Highway Funds if any billboards fell within 1,000ft of a highway or primary use road. This was amended down to 660ft and 10 percent of their funds.

No federal legislation has been passed since then however, there is state legislation in place to help keep people safe in certain areas. Section 522 of the General Assembly’s Illinois Administrative Code dictates how to apply for a permit to build a board, anything that will create a revocation of said permit, as well as any standards for which the signs are required to meet. Boards in the vicinity of O’Hare Airport for instance, must be in compliance with Federal Aviation Safety standards so that pilots are not inhibited during take-off or landing.

The first ever digital billboard was erected in 2005. This vehicle has quickly grown to an inventory to over 4,000 across the nation. With that growing inventory comes growing concerns over safety issues as a direct result of digital boards. Because of these concerns various studies were commissioned to see if that correlation is a positive or negative one.

Research Findings:

The first report was referenced by the Washington Bureau Chief of Adweek, Katy Bachman. The referenced report is a 2009 study done by Tantala Associates. Centered in Rochester, Minn., the research team analyzed data they received from the Rochester Police Department. After reviewing over 18,000 traffic reports over a five year period they found that digital billboards have no statistical relevance in causing accidents. Coincidence or not, the report found that areas in a .6 mile radius of digital billboards actually saw a decrease in traffic accidents by a rate of 4 percent over that same five year period.

Another study was done by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA). Conducted in 2007 and running for 3 years, the research team ventured to find if digital billboards were a distraction to drivers. They based their results on the length of time drivers took their eyes off the road to look at a board. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), concerns are at their highest when a driver’s gaze is diverted for 2 seconds or longer. The FHWA research team found that the longest any single driver was distracted was 1.3 seconds. The average glance length was .0835 seconds. Upon finalization of the study, the FHWA conducted interviews of the drivers who participated in the study and found that the main factor in creating a longer glance time was the complexity of the overall environment (i.e., hard to read or complicated creative).

A final study, again conducted by Tantala Associates, sought to examine a statistical relationship between digital billboards and traffic safety. This study took place in Albuquerque, N.M. They looked through seven years (’03 to ’09) worth of accident data in which they found 7,000 accidents that fell within a .2 to 1.0 mile radius of 17 different billboards.

These 17 boards were converted from traditional to digital boards at some point between 2006 and the end of 2007. Traffic data was obtained for the areas surrounding these boards; collectively the boards served around 665,000 drivers per day or around 240 million a year. Additionally, when called out to an accident site the Albuquerque Police Department adheres to the American National Standards Institute guidelines for classifying an automotive accident. That standard being that in order to be classified as an accident the property damage must cross a $500 threshold, or a person or animal must have been injured or killed in the event. The 7,000 accidents reported from 2003 to 2009 all adhere to these guidelines.

In depth analysis of these accidents shows that 2006 showed the highest amount of accidents reported near Digital billboards with around 1,100. Fridays happened to be the day where drivers were most prone to accidents, while just after 7pm was the worst hour of the day to be driving with over 700 accidents within that time frame.

Upon analysis of all the data provided, the Tantala team found very interesting results. Data was charted making notes of the number of accidents in the area as a traditional board and after installation as a digital one. Interestingly enough, the number of accidents actually increases the farther away from the board you got. Also, the average number of accidents per month decreased after reformatting of the board by 6.6 percent.

Overall Impressions:

While the safety concerns over digital billboards are relevant ones, you can see from the provided data that there is no evidence to suggest they should be. All studies, conducted by both independent and government sources, show the exact opposite.

From a media perspective digital boards do offer some benefits over traditional. There is no production fee attached to these boards as the files are relayed digitally and input into the board’s creative rotation. Most digital boards also work off of an RSS feed. This allows for an instantaneous switch of artwork which can allow for some unique creative executions. For instance, your creative in the AM could be sending a good morning message while your PM message can say something about staying alert and not driving if you’re too tired.

There are also some disadvantages, though. One of these disadvantages is that creative can seem blurred or distorted slightly depending on the colors used. This has gotten better as technology in the smaller sized boards has been updated, but the larger format boards still suffer this issue.

As it stands this investigation should not sway decisions one way or another in regards to digital boards. They are still a relevant vehicle to look into when availing Out of Home options, and show no clear correlation to causing traffic accidents.


"Report: Digital Billboards Not A Threat To Drivers" by Katy Bachman
Outdoor Advertising Association of America's (OOOA) Digital Billboard Summary Report
Tantala Associates' Digital Billboards Study

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