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‘Botched’ report may scuttle politically contentious digital billboards

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Betsi Fores The Daily Caller News Foundation

Digital billboards having been popping up more and more in recent years, currently accounting for 2,000 to 3,000 of the some 400,000 billboards nationwide. But any aggressive moves for these these eye-grabbing displays to be widespread may have to wait on account for an allegedly botched report by the Federal Highway Administration.

The report in question aimed to determine the safety of traffic when drivers take a glance at these digital billboards,  which change images every 6 to 8 seconds. The report concluded “that drivers’ glances at billboards were exceedingly brief, suggesting that the displays aren’t a threat to traffic safety.” According to expert reviewers, however, the report was flawed.  Fair Warning reports that “[t]he key findings vary so wildly from previous research that, as one reviewer put it, they ‘are not plausible.’”

The contentious research was supposed to be finished in 2009; meanwhile, the FHWA continues to claim it is still under review. The project has drawn interest and criticism from both industry veterans and open space advocates, as well as the interest of congressmen.

The billboard industry has a vested interest in the results, and contends the varying nature of the results indicate that rotating billboards have no effect on drivers or traffic.

In 2006 a memo was released by the FHWA that “stated that electronic displays were not prohibited under longstanding federal-state agreements that ban ‘intermittent’ or ‘flashing’ signs.”

The memo drew sharp criticism from anti-billboard groups, including Scenic America, which claimed that the digital billboards changing every few seconds embodied the definition of “intermittent.” Following the criticism, FHWA sought research to determine the effects of the rotating billboards to oncoming traffic.

The study initially was commissioned to the consulting firm Science Applications International Corp. Controversy began when they firm hired Jerome Watchel, a Berkeley-based traffic safety expert.

As MSNBC reports:

“The industry at the time was smarting from a report by Wachtel for Maryland transportation officials. They had asked him to review two industry-sponsored studies that the industry said confirmed the safety of digital billboards. Wachtel’s report said both studies were biased and misleading.”

Watchel’s previous finding drew ire and claims of bias from billboard industry veterans.

Joined with political allies, the outdoor advertising association wrote a letter to the Secretary of Transportation complaining about the bias of Watchel’s “high-profile activism,” warning that his contribution may tarnish the integrity of the ongoing federal report.

The five members of Congress who co-signed the letter have received campaign support from the billboard executives, totally $26,484 since 2006. They maintain, however, that the congressmen “were concerned that the reports from the Federal Highway Administration were not unbiased.  That was the only purpose of the letter.”

Experts suggest that the longer a driver glances away from the road, the higher the chance for an accident, though glance times are varied. Glances between .75, 1.6 and 2 seconds are considered more dangerous. The FHWA study significantly found few instances where glance times were longer than .75 seconds, with a frequency of only one percent.

But outside experts contacted by Fair Warning suggest the data was highly suspect — it is very rare and uncommon that glance times would consistently be so low, one-tenth of a second.

Paul A. Green, a research professor at the University of Michigan Transportation Institute, said glances so brief would mean the drivers “never really looked’’ at the billboards.

“It’s a flaw in the data,” Green said. “You wonder, if they made this mistake did they make other mistakes?”

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