A Porsche changed Jerry Wachtel's life

It was sitting on a racetrack, when, as a college student, Wachtel stuck his head inside. What impressed him was not the car's stripped-down feel but the tachometer, turned on its side so that the red line faced toward the sky “at the 12 o'clock mark,” he says.

“When the driver is racing a car, he doesn't have a lot of time to look at where the needle is. If it's right in front of him, he sees it a lot faster,” he explains. The less time spent looking away from the track, the quicker the driver reaction.

That brief experience led Wachtel to become an engineering psychologist — specifically, he has spent his life studying human behavior, then telling governing authorities how to increase driving safety and save people's lives.

Wachtel's credits are on the national and international scale. He was director of a Federal Department of Transportation lab that studied driver behavior. In 1980, he performed the first study on how drivers are affected by looking at digital signage.

Now a consultant, he is a sought-after speaker at the American Association of State Highway & Transportation Officials (AASHTO), often presenting research to leaders of transportation departments.

Wachtel knows about as much as a man can know about the effects of roadway billboards on driver safety, whether those billboards are traditionally illuminated, static digital displays or digital signs that flip every several seconds.

For a long time now, researchers have known that a driver who takes his eyes off the road for two seconds or longer increases his risk of crashing by more than a factor of two. Yet a study paid for by the billboard industry shows that “static” billboards cause five percent of drivers to take their eyes off the road for two seconds or more.

And when it comes to driving past the much brighter new technology of digital billboards? A staggering 17 percent of drivers stop watching the road for two seconds or more.

Wachtel believes there are safe locations where, in general, billboards can be erected without statistically increasing the chances of car crashes.

But, he says, the evidence is clear that placing any “visual distraction” such as a billboard along roadway curves, hills — or, “especially,” along interchanges — is dangerous, increasing the chance of roadway death or injury.

Yet this is exactly the type of location where Los Angeles politicians led by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, his first cousin California Speaker of the Assembly John A. Pérez and City Councilwoman Jan Perry — backed unanimously by the L.A. City Council — would place 20 billboards.

The billboards would benefit megacorporation AEG, which would use the millions of dollars in advertising revenue to defray the costs of building a promised “Pico Hall” convention space next to its proposed $1.6 billion Farmers Field NFL stadium. An unknown fraction of the billboard ad revenue would go into city coffers.

AEG would place those ads along the curving, elevation-changing, massive interchange of the heavily trafficked 10 and 110 freeways, where more than 550,000 drivers pass by each day traveling in four directions — thus breaking every rule Wachtel cherishes.

The danger of mixing advertising and interchanges, he explains, is that “Some cars are speeding up, some cars are getting off, [some drivers are] looking for exit signs — these are places where we have a lot of traffic conflict. When you have traffic conflict, you have an increased risk of a crash.”

Wachtel adds, “Strictly from the basis of traffic safety, you don't want to have billboards staring drivers in the face, where traffic conflicts are high.”

That's why, he says, “There are many countries [that] prohibit advertising signs within a certain distance of a freeway interchange.”

Wachtel is highly regarded as an expert. States, cities, counties all call Wachtel.

But in September 2008, when Perry led an 11-to-1 City Council vote to award “signage rights” to AEG that would have let it mount billboards on the L.A. Convention Center walls facing the freeway, no city official sought Wachtel's advice. The controversial plan never received a final go-ahead.

Nor did his phone ring in the many months leading up to Aug. 9, when the City Council and Villaraigosa's “blue ribbon” panel approved an NFL stadium agreement that enshrines the use of billboards at that same interchange, and on those same Convention Center walls, as a cornerstone of funding for Pico Hall, a convention building AEG has promised to build as part of its Farmers Field deal (after it demolishes West Hall).

Before signing the Convention Center/Farmers Field advertising deal with AEG, rather than commission a safety study about car crashes and possible loss of life related to erecting numerous billboards on the freeway, city leaders commissioned a different kind of study entirely: They asked how much money they could make from the advertising.

A “sponsorship evaluation” prepared for the city by Convention Sports & Leisure (CSL) was largely based on the aborted 2008 deal in which Perry wanted to give AEG control of dozens of proposed displays, signs and billboards on the advertising-free outer walls of the Convention Center. CSL says the Farmers Field billboard deal would bring in $5.4 million in annual ad revenue.

Some $4.96 million of that would flow from advertising sold on 20 “static” signs visible from the 10 and 110 freeways and interchanges, city documents say, with each sign earning $18,595 to $29,397 per month.

In fact, the revenues are likely to be far greater.

CSL's Bill Rhoda says its evaluation of the Convention Center billboards as cash generators was an “art,” not a science, balancing location, distance and visibility from the freeway, along with how the ads will be packaged in terms of AEG's other deals.

(AEG declined to talk to the Weekly, stating that it felt our story on Sept. 15, “Farmers Field's Fanciful Green Promise,” gave short shrift to AEG's views of reaching carbon neutrality.)

Rhoda, who was paid by the city, says AEG's control of billboards on the citizen-owned Convention Center will let AEG “enhance their packages and charge more” to advertisers, by bundling the new space with the company's billboards and signage at L.A. Live and Staples Center.

Ironically, Rhoda says, the City Council's decision to allow AEG to erect “14, 15 signs all next to each other” on the huge, curving turquoise wall of the Convention Center next to the two freeways will tend to decrease each billboard's value.

But ominously, Wachtel says, such a dense grouping will only increase the billboards' danger factor.

“The driver could be expected to look at every one,” he says, meaning that Angelenos will peer at AEG's numerous billboards, taking their eyes off the road longer than for a single billboard. This type of hazard is so well-proven, Wachtel says, that states and counties in the United States “typically” require billboards to be placed 500 feet apart and sometimes 1,500 feet apart.

The city's “No. 1 priority as public officials is to evaluate health, safety and welfare — and it's not about how much money they can make from a deal,” says Mary Tracy, president of Scenic America, which fights the powerful billboard lobby nationally.

In two other major California cities, San Francisco and San Diego, officials were disturbed that L.A. leaders view a prominent and publicly owned building as a backdrop for private advertising needs.

When told that the L.A. City Council has approved a deal to paper the Convention Center with ads, an official with the San Diego Convention Center laughed dismissively. When asked how many commercial billboards are displayed on the outer walls of the San Diego Convention Center, a city staffer there couldn't think of any.

In San Francisco, County Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi, who is running for sheriff, says: “It might seem like the path of least resistance to go after advertising dollars by utilizing or parlaying public buildings. But once you start down that road, it seems to spiral into ways that spill into threats of privatization and compromise of the public-trust doctrine.”

That spiraling effect already seemed evident, with the lack of any visible effort by the 15 L.A. City Council members, over many months of hearings and pronouncements about Farmers Field, to explain the dangers of their billboard plan to people in cars along the 110-10 freeway interchange.

California Highway Patrol Officer Mike Harris, asked for a “window of time” in which it's safe for drivers to look away from the road, said: “It's unrealistic to think that people are never going to take their eyes off the road. But … there is no 'safe time.' ”

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