Do digital billboards distract drivers? Lethbridge enters debate

Lethbridge is taking a closer look at digital billboards amid calls for a ban on such advertisements in the interest of traffic safety.

Bright lights and motion can distract drivers, says expert

New rules for digital billboards are up for debate in the southern Alberta city of Lethbridge. (CBC)

Lethbridge is taking a closer look at digital billboards amid calls for a ban on such advertisements in the interest of traffic safety.

Coun. Jeffery Coffman, who is chairing a commission on new rules for digital billboards and signs, says they are "TV on a stick" and distracting to drivers.

Anthony Singhal, a psychology and neuroscience professor at the University of Alberta, agrees.

"The biggest issue with electronic billboards, in terms of driver distraction, is that because they have bright lights or they can have motion.… They have the ability to attract your attention."

Singhal said once something has your attention, you have to spend time analyzing it.

"Then you spend time perhaps, you know, several seconds taking your mind off the road and I think the potential for that being a more dangerous situation is high."

Research highlights risk

Research out of Sweden that monitored peoples eyes while driving in a real car showed that digital billboards can take people's eyes off the road for two to three seconds.

"Anytime you take your eyes off the road for that length of time, you are at risk for collision," said Singhal.

This research alone is not enough to make it clear that this is a traffic safety hazard though, he added.

"All they were able to determine was that the eyes were off the road for that period of time."

"It's too early to say that they can cause an accident, but I think it's not too early to say that if they're in certain parts of the road they can be dangerous," said Singhal.

Rules needed?

He said a total ban may not be necessary if they just impose some rules.

"One would be to make sure that the brightness of the billboard changes with the brightness of the day."

Sometimes digital signs can be helpful to drivers, he said. 

"There is electronic information that is helpful. I mean on certain highway stretches you can get information about, you know, the traffic situation up ahead and that can be helpful to drivers or if the information is giving you your speed," he said.

"I think it's if the information is really provocative in another way or really attention grabbing in another way that it can be dangerous."

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