Distracted driving has been a popular news topic and safety concern of late, but most articles on the issue have focused on the impact of texting or phone conversations while driving. Little has been written about distractions outside the car, such as digital billboards that flash or change messages. States and cities are free to regulate such signs on their roadways, but many are waiting for the release of a long-delayed federal report.
In 2007, the FHWA ruled that digital displays did not violate their long-standing rule against changeable signs, but that ruling was widely criticized by anti-billboard groups. To allay safety fears, in 2009 FHWA commissioned a study of the impacts of distractions caused by these billboards. The results have still not been released, but expert reviewers claim that the studies were botched. Conclusions that claimed drivers barely glanced at the billboards, not looking away from traffic long enough to be dangerous, have been called “not plausible.”
The lack of federal guidelines, as well as the refusal of FHWA officials to talk about the report, has left many state and local authorities without accepted research to make decisions on the safety of changeable digital signs.