Inquirer Editorial: Roadside distractions

Editorial: Roadside distractions

When every stretch of highway in America looks like Times Square, it will be too late to worry about the driver distractions caused by electronic billboards.

The bright, gaze-riveting billboards are popping up in this region – notably, along the heavily trafficked Pennsylvania Turnpike in Bucks County. Their messages change every few seconds, making them a gold mine for outdoor ad companies, which can sell the same space several times over.

But what’s the impact on drivers whizzing by at speeds of 65 miles per hour and greater? Are they taking their eyes off the road, waiting for the next message to appear?

Drivers who slow or even swerve while eyeing a billboard could be risking their lives or others’ at turnpike speeds.

With highway travel already made risky by drivers using cell phones and punching out text messages, the addition of these still-novel electronic billboards is a daunting prospect that government highway-safety officials need to assess.

In Pennsylvania, state lawmakers have yet to ban handheld phone calls and text messaging as New Jersey has done. So the roads will be even less safe with the addition of more distractions.

That’s why federal highway-safety regulators need to move quickly to determine the risks posed by these neon-bright signs, and then update regulations that now limit distracting features on free-standing signs.

A Federal Highway Administration study on the distraction risks is under way and should be completed over the summer.

Not surprisingly, the billboard industry already has produced an academic study that found electronic billboards to be no more distracting to drivers than standard highway signs. But in its continuing in-depth coverage of driver distractions, the New York Times reports the study was rejected as slanted by reviewers. A congressionally chartered agency, the Transportation Research Board, refused to publish it.

The changing billboards cropping up along the highways may get advertisers’ messages out, but they should be limited if studies confirm what appears to be common sense. That is, the signs represent a clear safety risk as a distraction for passing motorists.

Under present federal rules, no sign can have a “flashing, intermittent, or moving light or lights.” Today’s electronic signs at least appear to be as attention-getting as any flashing sign.

Only about 2,000 of the nation’s 450,000 billboards are electronic, but industry officials predict that number could grow to 15 percent. That would mean more than 60,000 electronic signs. So there is no time to lose in assessing the safety implication and, if necessary, limiting the signs.

Once highways look like Broadway and 42d Street, it will be too late to turn back.

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