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What the Feds Say About Digital Billboards Safety Research

Date: December 09, 2016

Summary:
The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) conducted research on digital billboards; it was released in late 2013. Recently a sister agency within US-DOT – the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) – explained this important research in clear terms.

Body:
What do the Feds say when asked about the Government’s research on digital billboards?

Not much.

However, the federal highway safety agency has just provided a clearly worded description of government research that says digital billboards are not distracting.

“The results of this study,” said an official from NHTSA headquarters, “are consistent with a wealth of research that has been conducted on vision in natural environments.”

The Back Story

FHWA spent years researching digital billboards and driver behavior. Its long-awaiting study, based on eye glances, was released without fanfare the day before New Year’s Eve in 2013, with:

  • No press conference
  • No news release
  • Little comment from the agency, which posted its report online
More than a week would pass before news media noticed. The Hill published an article on January 7, 2014: “DOT study finds digital billboards don’t distract drivers”

Since then, the FHWA has said little, even when its research was criticized.

A Question from Georgia

In Georgia, an anti-billboard group called Stop Johns Creek Billboards contacted the federal government to express concern about safe-driving messages displayed on digital billboards.

This group’s inquiry about digital billboards and safety was sent to the NHTSA. The FHWA, which conducted the research on digital billboards, is NHTSA’s sister agency within the US Department of Transportation.

On November 23, 2016 – the day before Thanksgiving – the federal highway safety agency explained the federal research in an email reply to the anti-billboard group in Georgia. The full response appears below.

Highlights include:

  • A global engineering firm (Science Applications International Corporation, SAIC) was contracted by government to help research digital billboards
  • The federal research was peer-reviewed
  • Results showed that the longest glance in the direction of a digital billboard was well within the safety threshold set by government
Email from NHTSA to John’s Creek Billboards:

From: Lori Millen <Lori.Millen@dot.gov>
Date: Wednesday, November 23, 2016 at 2:41 PM
To: “info@stopjcbillboards.org” <info@stopjcbillboards.org>
Subject: Johns Creek Billboards

Dear Ms. Murphy:

Thank you for sharing your concerns about the Stop the Texts. Stop the Wrecks. digital billboards in Johns Creek, GA. Your emails to TSM, Susan McMeen, and NHTSA’s Region 4 office were forwarded to me for a response.

Please be advised that the US Department of Transportation’s Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) contracted the Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC) to study the effects of digital billboards on driver attention and distraction in 2007. This study, which was based on how long drivers took their eyes off the road when in the presence of digital billboards, was conducted to determine if digital billboards posed an unsafe driver distraction. The study was completed in early 2010, and a draft report was subjected to peer review in 2012.

On December 30, 2013, FHWA released its final report that included the following findings:

  • The presence of digital billboards does not appear to be related to a decrease in looking toward the road ahead, which is consistent with earlier industry sponsored field research studies done by the Virginia Technical Transportation Institute (VTTI).
  • The longest fixation to a digital billboard was 1.34 seconds, and to a standard billboard it was 1.28 seconds, both of which are well below the accepted standard.
The results of this study are consistent with a wealth of research that has been conducted on vision in natural environments. In the driving environment, gaze allocation is principally controlled by the requirements of the task. The present data suggest that the drivers in this study directed the majority of their visual attention to areas of the roadway that were relevant to the task at hand (i.e., the driving task). Furthermore, it is possible, and likely, that in the time that the drivers looked away from the forward roadway, they may have elected to glance at other objects in the surrounding environment (in the absence of billboards) that were not relevant to the driving task. When billboards were present, the drivers in this study sometimes looked at them, but not such that overall attention to the forward roadway decreased.

FHWA has authority over issues relating to outdoor signage. If you have any additional questions or concerns, I would encourage you to contact Melissa Corder at melissa.corder@dot.gov. She can provide you with more detailed information about the FHWA studies.

I hope this information has been helpful to you, and thank you for your interest in highway safety.

Sincerely,

Lori Gabrielle Millen, Marketing Specialist
U.S. Department of Transportation/NHTSA

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