New traffic hazard: moving signs

The Baltimore Sun

The electronic sign towering over Scardina Home Services on Veterans Highway in Millersville isn't just about business, its employees say. At Christmastime, snowflakes fall over lighted messages wishing drivers happy holidays. With patriotic images of the Vietnam Memorial and soldiers, other messages urge commuters to support the troops.

But some highway safety experts say such eye-catching signs could distract drivers - presenting another hazard for motorists already juggling cell phones, following the spoken directions from electronic navigation devices and otherwise stretching their powers of concentration.

The Federal Highway Administration plans to commission a study this fall to find out whether moving video billboards cause more accidents, and last night, an Anne Arundel County councilman submitted a bill to ban the devices from the county's roadways, joining a national debate on whether to ban electronic signs and billboards.

Despite the lack of hard, direct evidence about the effects of the high-tech signs, a 2006 study commissioned by AAA found that when someone's eyes are off the road for more than two seconds for any reason, the odds of a crash more then double.

"Any extra distraction outside the vehicle is going to make drivers less safe, so it's hard to be a proponent of one type of billboard over another," said Fairley W. Mahlum, spokeswoman for the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. "In a perfect world, people would use every mirror in their car, and follow all the laws and wear their seat belts, and there wouldn't be any distractions outside the vehicle - including billboards."

The topic is one that has only recently arisen. Up until several years ago, most highway billboards were relatively unsophisticated, said Federal Highway Administration spokesman Doug Hecox.

The static printed images that hawked shaving cream in the 1950s have given way to those with digital cutouts that list escalating lottery jackpots, rippling billboards that flip every few seconds to different images and digitally lighted billboards with blinking beer mugs.

David Hickey of the Alexandria, Va.-based International Sign Association, which represents the on-premise sign industry, said the use of electronic signs has jumped 15 percent to 20 percent in the past five years. Such displays, called electronic message centers or EMCs, cost anywhere from $5,000 to 25,000, depending on the size.

"Properly designed and placed, EMCs are good for small businesses because they can change messages easily, they have superior legibility and conspicuity," he said. "That's why federal and state governments use these types of signs to alert motorists. So if they cause traffic accidents, why are governments putting them by the side of the road?"

A study commissioned by outdoor advertising groups and released last month by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute found no measurable link between a series of digital billboards on highways outside Cleveland and the number of accidents.

But the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimated in 2002 that 25 percent to 30 percent of police reported traffic crashes caused by driver inattention or distraction.

Citing concerns about their potential risk to drivers - and their tacky flashiness - communities in Kentucky and Massachusetts took up plans to ban electronic signs in the past week, according to published reports.

Despite the comparisons to Las Vegas, Times Square and frenetic TV commercials, other jurisdictions, including the state of Tennessee and Charlotte, N.C., have considered allowing the outdoor ads to change more frequently - eight seconds, up from every 24 hours. Des Moines, Iowa, and the state of Arkansas have recently approved similar time frames to switch ads on electronic billboards.

Baltimore doesn't have any electronic billboards now, but a company that will sell the space to advertisers intends to apply for a permit for a sign on North Charles Street by Penn Station. The display can change, but may "not have any flashing, blinking or otherwise fluctuating light," movie clips or sound elements.

To the north of the city along I-95, the Maryland Lottery updates its electronic billboard daily announcing the Mega Millions jackpot.

Carroll and Baltimore counties don't restrict electronic message signs, while Robert J. Francis, Howard County's director of Inspections, Licenses and Permits, said "anything that moves, streams or scrolls is not permitted." And in Harford County, Harford Mall lost its large marquee during an expansive renovation after zoning regulators called the sign too distracting to motorists.

In Anne Arundel County, zoning law allows electronic message boards "as long as they are on a cycle of no less than five seconds." Sandwich, revolving and animated signs are not permitted.

Councilman Jamie Benoit's bill would add to that list "signs containing movement achieved by electrical, electronic or mechanical means, including signs containing moving pictures, video images or words."

Benoit said he believes the billboards already are illegal. His bill would merely clarify a law already on the books. "That's advertising, that you create as much disruption as you can to get people to look at your sign," said Benoit, a Democrat from Crownsville. "People are going to look at the signs and wreck their cars."

The county has seven or eight of these signs, according to the Annapolis and Anne Arundel County Chamber of Commerce. Of that, only a couple appear to have moving video or text that would conflict with Benoit's bill, said Bob Burdon, the chamber's president and chief executive officer.

The chamber has not taken a position on the bill, but it plans to be involved in shaping any new legislation, he said.

Burdon said that a 20-foot height restriction for electronic billboards would reduce potential distraction caused to passing drivers, putting it on the same level as utility workers fixing electric lines or a flock of birds flying overhead.

"I don't think any business wants to be held responsible for causing a driver to get in an accident," Burdon said.

Janet Pawlak, Scardina's bookkeeper and secretary, says she thinks any legislation on the issue is ridiculous. Some drivers will be distracted by anything, she said.

"This is nothing different than looking at the guy in the car next to you at the red light," she said.

nia.henderson.baltsun.com

Sun reporters Larry Carson, Mary-Gail Hare, Alia Malik and Josh Mitchell contributed to this article.

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