Montana approves digital billboards amid continuing national debate

By Bill Holloway

The Montana Transportation Commission recently voted 4-1 to allow digital billboards along highways in areas zoned commercial or industrial. The signs were allowed despite substantial public opposition. However, they are subject to a number of restrictions aimed at reducing their distraction to drivers—prohibiting movement and flashing, requiring a minimum display time of eight seconds, limiting brightness, keeping them away from intersections, and setting spacing requirements between signs. While digital signs are getting the go ahead in Montana, they are facing opposition in other parts of the country.

The California Supreme Court recently upheld an appellate decision in favor of Los Angeles’ billboard rules. The City of Los Angeles had been sued by Lamar Central Outdoor, a nationwide billboard company, which had challenged the city’s ordinances restricting the conversion of conventional billboards to digital and limiting the construction of new billboards outside of designated areas. In Pennsylvania new legislation was introduced earlier this month that would require local governments to hold public hearings on sign size, lighting, spacing, and community impacts before approving new electronic or digital billboards. The bill would also change the permitting process, increasing the amount of involvement by PennDOT and local governments.

The different postures that local and state governments have taken towards digital signs is partially due to the uncertainty surrounding how much the billboards contribute to driver distraction and associated safety problems. While FHWA released a study on the subject in 2013, its findings were called into question by an extensive peer-reviewed critique that identified a variety of methodological issues and errors. SSTI covered the federal study and the critique in March 2015.

Bill Holloway is a Transportation Policy Analyst at SSTI.