Digital Billboards, the New Driving Danger

Safety advocates who worry about the dangers of distracted driving have a new concern beyond cellphones and hi-tech dashboards: digital roadside billboards.

A researcher from the University of Alberta has discovered that language used on billboards can provoke an emotional response that affects our driving abilities. And whether the words have a negative or positive connotation seems to determine whether the attention wanders or the foot gets heavier.

digital billboard


These high-tech billboards marry the glow of Times Square with the immediacy of the Internet. Images change every six to eight seconds, so advertisers can flash timely messages — like the latest headlines, deals, or even the song playing on a radio station at that moment. These ever-changing, bright billboards are “television on a stick” and give drivers, many of them already calling and texting, yet another reason to take their eyes off the road.

Abby Dart, executive director of Scenic Michigan, a nonprofit group trying to block construction of new digital billboards in the state, calls the signs “weapons of mass distraction” and says they can be more dangerous than phones. “You can turn off your phone,” she said. “The billboard gets your attention whether you want to give it or not.”

The billboard industry argues that the new signs are part of a larger technological and economic shift to a paperless society and that they give advertisers more flexibility.

Ultimately drivers need to take responsibility for their actions behind the wheel, even if it meets reducing the usual driving stimuli such as talking or listening to the radio.

Any kind of distraction is risky when you’re driving. But there would appear to be a larger risk when it comes to emotional stimuli.