Digital signs on state highways? Don’t go there

The News TribuneFebruary 7, 2013 

Here’s something you don’t hear a lot of Washington residents saying:

“Sure wish we had more billboards cluttering up the landscape – especially the big, really bright kind you can hardly take your eyes off of.”

These signs don’t have a lot of fans among the public, who tend to view them as visual blight. So it’s hard to figure out who, exactly, state lawmakers are trying to please in sponsoring House Bill 1408 and Senate Bill 5304, which would let cities approve electronic billboards along state highways that cross their boundaries. (State Sen. Tracey Eide, D-Federal Way, is the only South Sound legislator among the co-sponsors.)

The measure is supported by Clear Channel Outdoor, the giant national sign company that is currently in a legal battle with the City of Tacoma over its sign ordinance.

Legislators should recognize that there’s no going back if they give sign companies an entree like this. Tacoma’s experience in trying to reduce billboard blight – even after giving sign companies many more years than they needed to amortize the expense of erecting their billboards – should give lawmakers pause. If the industry gets a foot in the door, it will be hard to contain it.

Static billboards are bad enough. But the bright, distracting electronic ones are another matter entirely. Besides cluttering the landscape, they pose a safety issue, even if they only change their message every eight seconds instead of using motion, like the one drivers are familiar with on tribal land along Interstate 5 in Fife.

Anything that takes a driver’s gaze away from the road for more than two seconds greatly increases the risk of an accident, according to a 2006 Virginia Tech study for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Nearly 80 percent of crashes involved driver inattention just prior to the crash.

Does anyone think increasing the number of billboards – and especially along busy state highways – would be a good thing for traffic safety?

In many parts of the country, and in other countries, action is being taken to get rid of digital billboards. Why in the world would lawmakers want to let this genie out here and increase the number of ugly, dangerous, distracting signs?

They should be less concerned about what the sign industry wants and more responsive to their constituents, who overwhelmingly oppose electronic billboards.

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