The Dangerous Distraction of Digital Billboards

Advertisers know it’s important to capture people’s attention to make an impact, but when it comes to taking people’s attention away from driving, the impact could come in the form of a high-speed crash.

Unlike traditional billboards, which are simply large painted boards, digital billboards can change their bright and colorful images every few seconds. This makes the digital billboard flashy and interesting to the traffic passing by, not unlike a huge big-screen television along the side of the road, but is it too eye-catching for safety?

The scientific proof is still disputed, but marketers ought to be aware of the potentially deadly consequences of digital billboards as an advertising channel. To inform marketers who may be considering digital billboards going forward, here are some studies and their findings regarding safety.

Virginia Tech study

The Transportation Institute at Virginia Tech published a fact sheet based on their 2006 study of car accidents and near-collisions. They used a number of monitoring instruments in each car, including five channels of digital video, front and rear radar sensors, accelerometers and vision-based lane trackers, to capture about a year’s worth of data on 100 different cars used for general-purpose driving.

They found that nearly 80% of crashes, and 65% of near-crashes, occurred due to driver inattention such as distraction or simply looking away for three seconds. When it comes to rear-end striking crashes, inattention was a contributing factor in 93% of cases. Interestingly, the rate of crash and near-crash incidents due to inattention decreased with age, with the 18- -20-year-old age group four times higher than older age groups such as 35+ years of age.

This well-respected study shows that only a couple seconds of inattention can easily lead to auto accidents.

ODOT study

In this early study of digital billboard safety in 2008 by the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT), brought about when Salem, Oregon introduced four digital billboards to a major arterial thoroughfare, ODOT reviewed the existing literature and found that further research was needed.

One noteworthy point ODOT raised in this brief report is that the Highway Beautification Act of 1965, which was signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson after having been led by the efforts of his wife Lady Bird Johnson, was based partially on concerns about driver distraction by billboards. “Advertising that could distract or impair the driver’s vision was removed from highways under the Highway Beautification Act of 1965.”

Swedish study

In 2012, Swedish researchers published their study on the effects of electronic billboards regarding driver distraction in the journal Traffic Injury Prevention. This study showed that drivers looked at digital billboards significantly longer than conventional ones. The results read, “The visual behaviour data showed that drivers had a significantly longer dwell time, a greater number of fixations and longer maximum fixation duration when driving past an electronic billboard compared to other signs on the same road stretches.”

The digital signs often took the drivers’ attention away from the road for more than two seconds, which compares to the duration of inattention leading to crashes in the Virginia Tech study noted above.

As a result of this study, the Swedish government outlawed the use of digital billboards and ordered the removal of all the digital billboards they had authorized since introduction in 2009.

FHWA study

In 2013, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) issued the results of its digital billboard safety study, concluding that they were not a danger to traffic safety.

However, a peer-reviewed critique of the FHWA study later reported a number of problems with its methodology. The researchers were not familiar with the proper operation of their test equipment, the tested digital billboards were not as bright as those studied elsewhere, they only tested a handful of billboards, and the final report contained unexplained differences from earlier drafts. All of this, they say, makes the FHWA study conclusions highly suspect.

New England study

A 2016 paper published in Accident Analysis and Prevention by the New England University Transportation Center & MIT AgeLab reported an increase in number and duration of glances at digital billboards compared to regular billboards, and those glances were correlated with the times when those billboard images switched.

Led by a psychologist, this paper explains that flashy images evoke “obligatory shifts of covert visual attention” that automatically take place in less than 100 milliseconds. The researchers analyzed video from two previous field studies and found that drivers spent significantly less time concentrating on the road as they approached digital billboards.

The researchers admit that the ramifications of driver distraction on safety remain somewhat unclear, noting, “Although these data show a clear change in the distribution of glance behavior around the billboard, it is unclear at this time what, if any, features are safety-relevant.” Nonetheless, they advise that action should be taken to further assess and mitigate the safety impacts of digital billboards.


Aside from the risks to human life posed by digital billboards, which should dissuade some conscientious marketers on that basis alone, it’s possible that legal ramifications could ensue.

“One lawsuit recovered $1.9 million for a pedestrian struck by a vehicle while working on the roadside,” says Jason Hennessey, marketing consultant for Atlanta Car Accident Lawyer. “The stakes are extremely high for the parties found responsible for distracting drivers.”

Furthermore, as public awareness grows about these safety issues, companies using digital billboards may experience damage to their reputations for partaking in the questionable practice.

Perhaps, with the advent of self-driving cars, accidents due to distracted drivers will be eliminated and all vehicle occupants will be able to fully amuse themselves safely in looking at all the digital billboards decorating the roadside.

In any case, in this age of constant and rapid technological innovation, marketers need to choose their advertising media wisely. Effectiveness and return on investment are key factors in evaluating new advertising technologies, but as these studies show, there are some audiences whose attention you should not seek to capture.

Melissa Thompson writes about a wide range of topics, revealing interesting things we didn’t know before. She is a freelance USA Today producer, and a Technorati contributor.