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Traffic Studies - Breaking the Myth


A number of States are taking the position that certain off-premise changeable message signs are consistent with State law and do not violate the lighting provisions of their State/Federal agreement. The State of Georgia recently amended its State law to allow off-premise signs having panels or slats that rotate provided they meet State criteria for frequency of message change and spacing. The State of Oklahoma recently considered amending its State law to also allow these signs. Because of the increased use of changeable message signs, we believe it is timely to restate our position concerning these signs.  The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) has always applied the Federal law 23 U.S.C. 131 as it is interpreted and implemented under the Federal regulations and individual State/Federal agreements. Because there is considerable variation among the States, the importance of these agreements cannot be overstated. In the twenty-odd years since the agreements have been signed, there have been many technological changes in signs, including changes that were unforeseen at the time the agreements were executed. While most of the agreements have not changed, the changes in technology require the State and FHWA to interpret the agreements with those changes in mind. Changeable message signs are acceptable for off-premise signs, regardless of the type of technology used, if the interpretation of the State/Federal agreement allows such signs. In nearly all States, these signs may still not contain flashing, intermittent, or moving lights. The FHWA will concur with a State that can reasonably interpret the State/Federal agreement to allow changeable message signs if such interpretation is consistent with State law. The frequency of message change and limitation in spacing for these signs should be determined by the State. This interpretation is limited to conforming signs, as applying updated technology to nonconforming signs would be considered a substantial change and inconsistent with 23 CFR 750.707(d)(5).

- Barbara K. Orski

Facts vs. Myths
On September 25, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) issued a memo which said digital billboards are suitable as off-premise displays because they’re not, flashing, or intermittent. Billboard opponents sharply criticized the FHWA memo, to the point of claiming federal regulators completely abandoned the law, science, common sense, and public sentiment. This attack on FHWA relies in part on five myths. Here are the facts:

Myth #1: Digital billboards are distracting and/or dangerous.


FACT: Numerous studies conclude digital billboards are not related to traffic accidents.


A growing body of evidence specifically addresses digital billboards:


  • Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, 3/22/07:

      From the driver’s standpoint, digital billboards are "safety neutral."


  • Tantala Associates, Consulting Engineers, 7/7/07

     An exhaustive analysis of accident data in Cuyahoga County, OH, shows no        correlation between digital billboards and accidents.


  • West Virginia Department of Transportation, 7/24/07

    "With a year behind us, we have no knowledge of any wreck or complaints of      wrecks or any distractions at any of the (digital) billboard sites."


  • South Carolina Department of Transportation, 9/6/07

     "The South Carolina Department of Transportation has not received any             complaints in regard to digital billboards."


  • Virginia Department of Transportation, 9/24/07

     "Our study turned up no accidents reported to local police in the vicinity of        the digital signs."




Myth #2: The FHWA memo ignores a study performed by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).


FACT: The April 2006 NHTSA study does not address digital billboards. Instead, it looked at a wide range of possible driver distractions.


The study concluded that short, brief glances away from the forward roadway for the purpose of scanning the driving environment are safe and actually decrease near crash/crash risk.


The study found glances more than two seconds increase near crash/crash risk.


FACT: The same organization which performed the April 2006 driver-distraction study for the NHTSA -- Virginia Tech Transportation Institute also performed a human factors study regarding digital billboards.


That study found the typical glance toward a digital billboard is less than a second, which is well under the two-second threshold set by NHTSA.



Myth #3: The FHWA memo dramatically alters existing law.


FACT: The FHWA memo does not touch existing federal or state law.


Changeable-message billboards have been authorized for more than ten years under a guidance memo issued by the FHWA in 1996.


The latest FHWA memo affirms and updates longstanding policy and practice throughout the United States. It affirms states authority to regulate their roadways and it suggests guidelines which protect public safety.

Myth #4: The FHWA memo ignores the generally accepted definition of intermittent.


FACT: The FHWA memo affirms longstanding policy, that static billboard displays are not flashing or intermittent. Digital billboards display static messages, not full-motion video or animation.


In Ohio, the office of Attorney General issued an opinion on this issue in 1996.

"It is my opinion that Ohio’s State/Federal agreement can be reasonably interpreted to allow changeable message signs notwithstanding the flashing, intermittent, or moving lights prohibition."


The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania’s Department of Transportation wrote a clearly worded letter in 2002: 

"The Federal Highway Administration has made it clear that it is up to the (state) Department to determine the frequency of message change for all changeable message type displays, so long as such displays comply with State law. Pennsylvania said such signs shall have no appearance of flashing or sudden bursts of light, and no appearance of animation, movement, or flow of the message/display."




Myth #5: The FHWA avoided public and stakeholder comment.


FACT: The FHWA assiduously and proactively sought comment prior to issuing the September 25 memo.


The FHWA conducted a national assessment of the outdoor advertising control program in 2006.


The agency received more than 1,800 comments.


FHWA conducted seven listening sessions across the country and initiated focus groups with stakeholders to solicit comments.


FHWA conducted in-depth interviews with more than 100 stakeholders


After hearing from stakeholders and the public, neutral assessors hired by the FHWA found the use of technology was perceived as the most important issue to stakeholders and was the issue with the most reasonable potential for agreement.

“Changeable signs safe, entertaining”

By Ken Klein


We had never seen "changeable message" signs until a family car trip in Florida. Piled in rental car, we were westbound from Panama City to visit the naval museum at Pensacola, with great weather like we're having now. Like magic, the billboard pictures changed. First, lush green golf fairways. Then, the white sand beaches of Destin. Then, a seafood restaurant. A kid's voice from the back seat: "How did they do that?" Indeed, changeable message signs get your attention, even if you were raised on MTV and video games. High-tech signs that change from one high resolution picture to another are entertaining, memorable and safe. While outdoor advertising has been around since ancient Egypt, the ability to change the image on signs is fairly new. As technology advanced, the federal Government decided in 1996 to give states the flexibility to allow changeable messages for standardized billboards. Most states, including Georgia and its neighbors, allow changeable message signs. For safety's sake, states require that changeable messages remain static for minimum periods. Some states require a four-second "dwell time"; current Georgia law requires 10 seconds. Nationwide, the typical standard is six seconds. The six-second rule was derived from calculations performed by the Minnesota Department of Transportation that determined that vehicles traveling at 55 mph go 80.67 feet per second. If you divide 500 feet (a common spacing requirement for regular billboards) by 80.67, it equals 6.19 seconds. Debates about distraction are as old as mobility itself. Modern motorists can be distracted by a variety of factors – in and out of vehicles. Years of independent study show no correlation between standardized outdoor advertising and traffic accidents. The latest such report was released last year by the respected American Automobile Association Foundation for Traffic Safety. State and federal courts, government transportation agencies and insurance company statistics on accidents indicate no connection between billboards and traffic accidents.

(Ken Klein is executive vice president for government relations of the Outdoor Advertising Association of America Inc.)

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