Are Digital Billboards Distracting Drivers?

Digital Billboards have only been increasing in prominence the last few years. These billboards are glossy, bright, and eye catching. They are a great tool to advertise a product in a loud and creative manner. Not to mention they reach a lot of people. Worldwide ad spending on billboards reached $38 billion in 2018. Which is a 35% increase from 2010. As we shift more and more into a digital world we are seeing an exponential increase in advertising, including the controversial world of digital billboards. Digital billboards, as multi-faceted as they are, have one initiative over all else; to grab your attention. It is literally their job to distract you from what you are doing. And if what you are doing is driving, it could be quite dangerous.

In 2018, out-of -home (OOH) advertising came second in terms of growth in global advertising seeing an increase of 3.1% from the previous year, with the internet coming in first. However, with that, comes serious concerns about whether or not they negatively effect the individuals who are interacting with these ads as they drive past them. It is estimated that 71% of consumers interact with roadside billboards. While an astonishing 98% interact with one billboard or an OOH advert a week. It goes without saying, the billboard industry is inescapable. As such, this leads to a lot of interaction with digital billboards while driving, and a possible consequence of this could be driver distractions that leads to car accidents.

In this article, I will be taking a deep dive into a few different studies that have looked into the polarizing topic of digital billboards.

Image of a Bright Digital Billboard on a busyHighway

Distracting Drivers

There was a study conducted in Sweden by researchers at the Swedish National Road and Transport Research Institute in regards to safety research, and they concluded that “drivers looked at digital billboards significantly longer than they did at other signs on the same stretch of road”. Due to this, drivers would take their eyes off the road for more than two seconds. Which is in the threshold of greatly increasing the risk of car accidents. Furthermore, they concluded that digital ads are capable of keeping a drivers attention for a prolonged period of time, as drivers are predisposed to notice changing lights in their peripheral vision to anticipate movement. It is a part of our evolutionary code to notice bright lights around us, so it is no surprise that we get distracted by these huge, expensive, creative ads while driving down a highway.

10% of all car crashes are caused by distracted drivers, and 10% of those crashes are fatal. So it can not go understated how distracting digital billboards are for some. Moreover, digital billboards make more impressions with individuals, as opposed to static billboards. Two recent studies have concluded that 75% of drivers notice digital billboards while only 51% notice static billboards. As stated earlier, it is a digital billboard’s job to capture the attention of individuals, which would subsequently avert their attention from the road, possibly leading to negative effects. Most car accidents are surprisingly not caused due to speeding or alcohol consumption, it is caused by distracted drivers. In the US, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration indicate that even being distracted for two seconds could lead to a significant increase in crash risk. Given that the threshold is so small it must be taken into consideration the consequences striking digital ads have on drivers.

A few more stats for you to ingest, The National Centre for Transportation Systems Productivity and Management, conducted their own study on whether or not there was a correlation between car accidents and drivers looking away for up to three seconds. They concluded that 80% of crashes and 65% of near crashes were caused by the driver being distracted for up to three seconds. They set up 18 study sites to come up with crash data analysis in Alabama and Florida and it revealed that the presence of digital billboards was correlated with an increase in crash rates in areas of billboard influence, compared to control areas, that they had set up with no digital billboards. However, they also indicated that an “objective evaluation” is still required to see if digital billboards truly distract driver’s attentions. They say this, as the relationship between these two variables are quite complex and that they need extensive research to see the true nature of their relationship. A final study that they conducted focused on if different demographics would have different visual behaviours with digital billboards. Their final results showed that teens were the most likely to have their gaze diverted compared to different age groups, regardless of the digital billboard shown. Which makes sense as younger drivers have less experience behind the wheel and are more susceptible to being distracted by what is going on around them as opposed to a more experienced driver who is more trained in staying focused on the road ahead. Moreover, given the fact that the majority of drivers on the road are between 20-54, i.e. not teenagers, the risks are not as high as some might think.

An Image of a distracting billboard at Night

Frustrations over Digital Billboards

Digital billboards have caused a stir. That is a fact. Many believe that they are as dangerous as texting while driving. And as mentioned earlier, it could be even worse. While many enjoy digital billboards there are some who do not, including those at the municipal level. And many cities are ready to take serious action. So much so that they are actually getting them banned. For example, in Montreal’s Plateau-Mont Royal borough, city politicians declared a ban on all billboards. While they are being sued by advertising agencies, citing it is a violation of free speech, many other places are following suit. Denver, Alaska, Maine, Hawaii, and Vermont have all banned digital billboards. This shows us that digital billboards, while extremely popular, do have some serious deterrents.

How Affected is the Visual Behaviour of Drivers?

Now, we have discussed the issues with digital billboards and a lot of their potential risks. However, as we know, there are always two sides to every story. We will now look at factors behind why digital billboards may not be as dangerous as some think. Firstly, an article published by The Huffington Post, revealed that the longest fixation time for a digital billboard was 1.335 seconds. And if you remember earlier it was concluded that over two seconds was the threshold for the highest possibility of car accidents.

Another study, this time conducted by CIMMA for the City of Toronto was able to conclude that there is not enough evidence to support that there is any concrete correlation between distracted drivers leading to accidents on highways.

We must consider what the potential consequences are of banning digital billboards from our streets. The billboard business is a multi billion dollar a year industry worldwide. Having them banned would cause a serious economic shakeup. It would result in the loss of thousands of jobs and millions in revenue. These factors must be taken into consideration when thinking about the consequences of our potential actions against digital billboards as they have become a ubiquitous part of our society.

An Image Comparing Standard and Digital Billboards


Not as Distracting as We first thought

As mentioned earlier digital billboards are a huge worldwide industry and all factors must be taken under consideration before any irrevocable decisions are made. So before we decide to pick up our metaphorical pitch forks, head to the streets, and call for the removal of digital billboards we must look at all the studies provided. And an unbiased one at that. Which is what was conducted by Traffic Injury Prevention, and after all the research was collected and analyzed it was concluded that billboard related distractions are just “minor”. This is due to the fact that drivers have grown accustomed to seeing billboards in their peripheral and have learned to not allow them to be considerably distracted by billboards in a manner in which it would diminish their ability to operate their vehicles properly.

Concurrently, there was another study conducted in 2015 that arguably brought this debate to a close. The Department of Transportation (DOT) produced a study in which they would track the eye movements of drivers, and they concluded that digital billboards were able to grab the attention of drivers slightly more than static billboards. How slightly? A mere 0.4 seconds, which falls below the mark of being dangerous and or a risk for a potential accident. The DOT study was seen as a definitive end to the conversation for some. This led to The Federal Highway Administration concluding that it was not necessary to regulate the presence of digital billboards.

The most important factor when conducting these studies is that they are thorough. And the final study I will be presenting have been so thorough that it took them eight years to complete their study, looking at a whopping 35,000 traffic accidents. The study, commissioned by the Foundation for Outdoor Advertising Research and Education, were able to conclude that there was no difference between digital and static billboards. How did they do it? They looked at the frequency of various traffic accidents at various billboard locations in Reading, Pennsylvania. And that was only the start. They cross-referenced their data with data from roads in Cleveland, Rochester, Albuquerque, Ohio, Minnesota, and New Mexico that all produced similar conclusions. Showing that there was no substantial difference between a digital or static billboard. Their data is pretty convincing given how large the sample size they were working with was. However, there is a catch. The foundation that commissioned the study (stated earlier in this paragraph) are affiliated with the Outdoor Advertising Association of America (OAAA). Which is an association that helps in the development of digital billboards. On top of that, they help fight anti digital billboard laws. Now, it is up to you whether or not you wish to take the conclusions of this study with a grain of salt or not. But due to their association with one another it would be hard to fully back the study despite all the data collected.

An Image of a Digital billboard

Now What?

Regardless where you stand on the debate, or care, or even had an idea that this was such an issue, it can not be ignored how important digital billboards have become, not only in advertising, but in our society. They have become a staple of our highways and city streets and account for a large chunk of the advertising that exists. While many have criticized digital billboards and the potential risks they have on drivers, it does not seem like they will be going away anytime soon. This multi billion dollar a year industry has a stronghold on a lot of the media we as consumers interact with on a daily basis so we can not underestimate its ability to influence us and grab our attention. That being said, it is always important to stay completely focused while driving as you would not only be putting yourself at risk but the many others you are sharing the road with. So the next time you see the latest Coca-Cola flavour or new burger at McDonalds being advertised make sure to stay focused on the road ahead and not on the big bright flashing lights and catchy headline.

Keywords: OOH, Visual Behaviour, Driver Distractions, Digital Billboards, Safety Research.






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