- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 21, 2012


Over the past several years, the federal government has poured millions of tax dollars into digital signs that inform drivers of highway traffic conditions. These multimillion-dollar efforts are styled as “intelligent transportation systems,” which is a fancy term jurisdictions use to claim they’re relieving congestion when, in reality, they just tell you that you’re stuck. Businesses that want to use the same technology to get the local economy moving are often told to take a hike.

On Tuesday, the nonprofit group FairWarning released documents it obtained showing the federal government has been sitting on a study of the safety effects of digital billboards since December 2010. These electronic signs allow advertisers to display their wares without the need to dispatch a team to paste up new material every time the message changes. Multiple companies can advertise throughout the day, at a far lower cost, with digital signs that rotate through the ads. Therein lies the problem.

Anti-capitalist groups have seized on the way one message shifts to another after a delay of around 10 seconds, claiming this is something that would create a massive distraction for drivers. They’ve been anticipating the release of a Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) study that began looking for a link between such signs and accidents since 2007. Even before any results have been published, some local officials have proposed sign-code ordinances that would ban private use of this new technology.

The sign industry believes FHWA is sitting on this particular study because it failed to reach the conclusion that was expected. The Outdoor Advertising Association of America gathered crash-test data on its own from the areas surrounding 69 digital billboards, including locations under review by federal bureaucrats. According to the group, the signs didn’t affect safety. Obviously, they have a big stake in the issue and an incentive to find that conclusion. Still, it makes sense. A digital billboard is no more likely to be a danger than a conventional billboard. On occasion, even a classic, painted billboard can momentarily draw eyeballs.

Moreover, if these digital billboards are dangerous simply because the message changes, so too are the government’s own signs that flash rotating messages about traffic conditions. The same technology doesn’t suddenly become safer simply because it’s in the hands of bureaucrats.

FHWA needs to come clean and release this long-overdue study. Hopefully, it will discourage groups that would rather not be reminded that we live in a market economy while they drive. Busybodies like Scenic America consider billboards an ugly blight upon the landscape and want them wiped out at any cost. The reality is that travelers who see these signs will know where a favorite restaurant or tourist spot is located. Commuters will learn of special deals or sales or products.

Bringing in these customers is precisely what drives business, jobs and the economy. Considering the official unemployment rate is 8.3 percent and our economy is stuck in neutral, the Obama administration ought to stop playing games with attractive, commerce-generating billboards.

The Washington Times

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