Coming Soon — to a Highway Near You?

I lived for 13 years in the state of Vermont, where billboards along roadways are not allowed. There is signage available — discreet but thoroughly visible directional signs along exit approaches that lead you to various businesses or landmarks — but there are no billboards.

This form of advertising was banned in 1968 (yes, you read that right) in order to preserve the natural beauty of the landscape in the Green Mountain State. I have always contended that the happy tourists who travel around the state and find it so outstandingly beautiful are probably not even aware that one of the main reasons they enjoy it so much is the absence of marketing-obstructed views.

This is not the case in North Carolina, where uninterrupted scenery along driving corridors must yield to the business interests of billboard owners and renters. And there is a plan in the North CarolinaHouse of Representatives (HB 581) which would do three significant things:

(1) eliminate local control over digital billboards;

(2) eliminate local control over billboard height; and

(3) allow digital billboards as close as 1,000 feet apart on each side of

highways, effectively allowing 10 digital billboards per mile

But setting aside the elimination of local control and the diminution of scenic beauty, there is a serious and potentially deadly danger in this legislative plan. It’s called “distracted driving.”

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, distracted driving claimed 3,477 lives in 2015, and injured another 391,000 across the country. The organization defines distracted driving as “any activity that diverts attention from driving,” and the result is an increase in your risk of crashing. Texting on your cell phone is cited as the most alarming because reading or sending a text takes your eyes off the road for 5 seconds — which, at 55 mph, is like “driving the length of an entire football field with your eyes closed.”

Studies are beginning to zero in on the safety issues of digital billboards. For example, a 2012 study by the Swedish National Road and Transport Research Institute and Germany’s Karlsruhe Institute of Technology found increased reaction times and increased lane deviations caused by digital billboards. “Dwell times are longer, the visual time sharing intensity is higher, very long single glances are more frequent, and the number of fixations is greater for the electronic billboards,” it was noted.

That study concludes: “Billboards appear to have an effect on gaze behavior (in) that they attract more and longer glances than regular traffic signs,” although the degree of safety hazard could “not be answered conclusively based on the present data.”

Several studies make the same point regarding gaze behavior, which can be linked to the distracted driving dangers mentioned above. The Virginia Transportation Research Council publishes a study fact sheet stating that “nearly 80 percent of all crashes and 65 percent of all near-crashes involved driver inattention … just prior to (i.e., within 3 seconds) the onset of the conflict.

In the Virginia Tech summation, it was noted that visual inattention was a contributing factor for 93 percent of rear-end-striking crashes.

Common sense, therefore, might tell us that 10 digital billboards per mile could multiply driver distractions. (That is their purpose — to attract the attention of drivers.) If attention to electronic billboards averages over two seconds (according to some recent studies), and there are potentially 10 billboards in the space of a mile, then the potential would seem to exist for increased risk on North Carolina’s highways.

Most states, including this one, now have laws restricting the use of cell phones while driving because of the danger of distraction. Before moving forward with HB 581, or the contents of any of the other four bills introduced in the House this legislative season having to do with billboards (House Bills 173, 578, 579, and 580), it would be good to see a serious study promoted by the Legislature to determine the likelihood of increased risk to North Carolina drivers as a result of this legislation.

Should you wish to promote such an idea, you might begin by contacting the primary sponsors of HB 581:

Rep. David R. Lewis (R), District 53, Harnett

Rep. Jason Saine (R), District 97, Lincoln

Rep. Ken Goodman (D), District 66, Hoke, Montgomery, Richmond,

Robeson, Scotland

Rep. Edward Hanes, Jr. (D), District 72, Forsyth

And you might want to do that today. This bill may gain hearing in the House Finance Committee very soon.


This is the opinion of Nelda Holder, PPNC Managing Editor







  • Mission

    PoliticallyPurpleNC examines -- from a nonpartisan angle -- the legislative decisions of the North Carolina General Assembly and their potential effects on the citizens of the state. It does so in a setting that includes context -- historical background and social implications. PPNC encourages rational, nonpartisan evaluation and advocacy for the good of the whole.
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