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Are digital billboards a distraction that leads to traffic accidents and fatalities? This question has dogged the outdoor advertising industry since digital boards debuted. Let’s put this to rest once and for all. The definitive answer is no – there is no documented correlation between digital billboards and fatal traffic accidents.

Why should you trust this conclusion? It comes from unbiased resources. Yes, of course, various entities from the outdoor advertising industry have commissioned their own studies over the past two decades that always conclude digital billboards are safe. That’s exactly what you would suspect.

But other researchers with no skin in the game have also reached the same conclusions over the years. These are the studies you can trust and put stock into.

Numerous universities, private consulting firms and federal agencies have performed studies on whether digital billboards cause fatal accidents. The resounding finding has been that you cannot establish a cause-and-effect between digital billboards and these tragedies.

Here, we take a deep dive into that research over the years and examine their conclusions, exploring what they mean for any company considering a digital billboard.

Billboard Distraction and Traffic Safety

Billboards draw people’s attention, no matter if they are static or electronic. That is not up for debate. The concern is, will a glance at a billboard while driving down the road lead to a crash?

A lot of things distract us while we’re driving, whether it’s our kids fighting in the backseat or the radio we fiddle with to find the best song. The red line is crossed if digital billboards distract enough to result in fatalities.

And researchers have been unable to make a direct connection between these distractions and fatal crashes. They have, in some instances, noted that digital billboards are more likely to be present in cases of accidents. But they cannot say the boards are the cause.

Consider a 2015 study by the University of Alabama at Birmingham. It noted a greater likelihood of the presence of digital billboards at crash sites but noted severe crashes occurred at low rates. Researchers also indicated there was no evidence that digital billboards caused the accidents, because so many factors come into play. “Local conditions, experimental settings, and other factors may play a role in the actual impact that digital advertising billboards have on traffic safety,” the report concluded. [1]

The lead researcher in the study told the Orlando Sentinel, “it is not easy to establish a clear link” between traffic safety and electronic billboards.

Digital Billboards Are a Minor Distraction

The literature on digital billboards and crashes returns again and again to the same conclusion: They provide a distraction but not enough of one to be a hazard.

A study for Traffic Injury Prevention [2] concluded, “Billboard-related distraction appeared to be minor and regulated by drivers as the demands of the driving task changed.”

What does that mean exactly? That drivers have become used to billboards. They check them out, but they have learned to do so in a manner that does not impair their ability to operate the vehicle.

This represents an important distinction from cause and effect. Digital billboards are not causing people to veer out of their lanes.

Indeed, a study presented at the 2015 Australasian Road Safety Conference found the amount of time drivers look at a digital billboard [3] — less than .75 seconds — is not enough to impact their ability to react to an unexpected event.

The Landmark Federal Highway Administration Study

In 2015, the Department of Transportation (DOT) released a study that laid to rest questions about the safety of digital billboards [4]. The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) conducted a report that concluded motorists were not endangered by digital billboards.

The study tracked eye movement of participating drivers, and it did find that digital billboards attract slightly longer glances than static ones. But the look is just that—a glance, less than 0.4 seconds. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration standard for what makes up a hazard to driving is 2 seconds. Digital billboards fall well below that mark.

The DOT study was widely interpreted as a definitive conclusion that digital billboards do not infringe on motorists’ safety and do not cause fatal accidents. The study was undertaken to determine if the FHWA should step in to regulate the presence of electronic billboards. The agency concluded that was unnecessary.

The study did, once again, note that digital billboards attract longer looks from drivers than traditional static billboards. That’s worth consideration for advertisers pondering where to put their messages. One conclusion these reports all share is that digital billboards command more attention than non-digital.

[1] Virginia P. Sisiopiku (2017), Digital Billboards and Traffic Safety Risks, Presentation to the TRB Subcommittee on Digital Billboards, 2017 TRB Annual Meeting.

[2] John S. Decker, Sarah J. Stannard, Benjamin McManus, Shannon M. O. Wittig, Virginia P. Sisiopiku & Despina Stavrinos (2014) The Impact of Billboards on Driver Visual Behavior: A Systematic Literature Review, Traffic Injury Prevention, 16:3, 234-239, DOI: 10.1080/15389588.2014.936407

[3] Carolyn Samsa (2015) Digital billboards ‘down under’. Are they distracting to drivers and can industry and regulators work together for a successful road safety outcome?, Proceedings of the 2015 Australasian Road Safety Conference 14 – 16 October, Gold Coast, Australia.

[4] U.S. Department of Transportation, Federal Highway Administration. Driver Visual Behavior in the Presence of Commercial Electronic Variable Message Signs (CEVMS). FHWA-HEP-11-014.

Digital Billboards Do Not Cause Fatal Accidents

If there were any credible evidence tying digital billboards to an increase in driver fatalities, these boards would be widely banned. The cost of a human life is way too high to justify the risk.

But no research supports that conclusion. The majority of researchers agree that the impact of digital billboards on driving warrants future study, but evidence so far supports their continued presence on the roads. These studies have been going on for upwards of a decade, too. Barring a major and unexpected behavioral change from drivers, that evidence will not change.

Responsible outdoor advertising companies should always monitor the latest research on digital billboards, just as DASH TWO does. We feel confident in saying there is no evidence correlating fatal accidents with these boards.

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