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My View On The Ban Of Digital Billboards

Jorg CieslokGuest Post: Jorg Cieslok – His 24 years of out-of-home experience spans from Vancouver to Montréal, Los Angeles to New York and throughout North America. one of Canada’s leading thinkers on issues relating to our digital world including social media and civil society.  Known for his industry foresight, creative thinking, sales and marketing strategy, Jorg has helped change the landscape of out-of-home media in Canada.  You can connect with Jorg on LinkedIn or Twitter.

In Dave Meslin’s article “Driven to Distraction” he links the distraction caused by digital billboards to automobile accidents as a leading cause of death; he suggests billboards are altogether unsafe and should be banned. Meslin’s claims need debunking.

Meslin relies on two key studies to support his arguments around the danger of digital billboards. He makes the sweeping claim that “almost every study that has been done shows a direct causal relationship between digital signage and driver distraction.” While he acknowledges that studies on collisions and digital billboards are inconclusive, part of the gap of his argument lies in the link he makes between distraction and collisions, which is not a link that researchers attribute to digital billboards.

For example, in relation to driver distraction, previous research conducted by the U.S. Department of Transportation, Federal Highway Administration led to the conclusion that taking your eyes off the road for two seconds or more presents a safety risk. However, average fixation time for a billboard was 379 milliseconds and 335 milliseconds for a standard billboard. The longest fixation time was 1.335 seconds for a digital billboard, which does not prove to be an unsafe distraction according to the research.

Newspaper glassesFurther, looking at a more recent study, in the Canadian context, conducted by CIMMA, commissioned by and for the City of Toronto, we can see that there is little legitimate evidence to support that billboards have a correlation to accidents or distraction leading to accidents on highways (Meslin curiously does not mention this study in his blog). In fact, this study actually documents related literature on collision and distraction, all of which stand in contrast to Meslin’s claims (and not solely based on inconclusive data). According to this study, published on September 17, 2013, of the eight mid-block treatment sites (some sign faces were in close proximity to one another so were grouped), collision frequency actually decreased significantly in a large majority of the sites. In the collision frequency in the comparison sites, there are similar findings where collisions increased at only one site. The study also concludes that “collision frequency under daylight and dark conditions is not statistically different before and after” installation.

Despite this research, Meslin draws the conclusion that “lobbyists for the billboard industry have taken advantage of this inconclusive data, for collisions, and twisted it into an argument that digital signage is therefore safe for drivers. This is a terrible distortion of the truth, and a distortion that puts human lives at risk.” What plausible risk? According to what conclusive study? This argument is not based on research but on Meslin’s opinion and general personal dislike for billboards.

Although Meslin dismisses the inconclusive data on collisions, it is this research, in fact, that is important. The researchers themselves write that they cannot conclude that collisions increase because of billboards. If researchers who conducted the study don’t make these conclusions (“The results of the before/after study show that there is not enough evidence to suggest that the electronic static roadside advertising signs have any impacts on road safety along the adjacent mid-block sections of Highway 27 and Gardiner Expressway, with 95% confidence”), how can Meslin?

While Meslin claims what is needed is a ban on outdoor digital advertising, there is no acknowledgement of the extent of immense regulation of the industry at present. For example, the billboard industry is arguably one of the most regulated in the City of Toronto where Meslin is most active with his appeals. Lighting, size, location, brightness, timing (when it is turned off), the transition between circulation–anything that effects safety, is already extensively regulated; safety concerns have been, and continue to be, addressed in the City of Toronto by-law.

The immediate ban on outdoor digital advertising proposed by Meslin would result in the loss of thousands of jobs and millions of dollars of revenue for the City of Toronto and other municipalities, as well as an increase of taxes. In fact, in the City of Toronto, the City is the biggest landlord for billboards and collects millions of dollars of revenue. This revenue is designated to support the arts community in Toronto. The increase of revenue for municipalities is only one benefit of the technological advancements in the industry. With such innovation, the display of new advertisements every 10 seconds can also be used for emergency notifications such as amber alerts, community updates, and the arts (such as the Paint the City campaign)

As an industry leader, we want to continue this conversation and encourage the dissemination of research and facts that relate to outdoor signage. We look forward to working with citizens and cities to develop regulations that are of benefit to everyone. Currently, the industry is working together to decrease sign clutter and enforcement. Why? Because it is in everyone’s best interest to do so.