A widely anticipated federal traffic study into the dangers to motorists of brightly flashing, distracting digital billboards reports that — drum role please! — more research is needed to figure out if they're unsafe.

The 39-page report, clinically entitled, “The Effects of Commercial Electronic Variable Message Signs on Driver Attention and Distraction: An Update,” concludes that past studies and past field and laboratory investigations, were “inconclusive” on the question of whether drivers were more likely to crash when looking at a brightly-lit screen, such as an outdoor advertisement.  

The study recommends a multi-study research program conducted over a number of years. Stage One would research whether motorists who look at electronic billboards are more likely to have an accident. Stage Two would explore factors such as road geometry, the brightness of the sign, how quickly the advertising image flips to a new image  and the distance between the sign and driver. The third stage would look at the relationship between distractions such as “eye glance behavior” and safety issues like crashes, fatalities and injuries.

Last month, California Assemblyman Mike Feuer proposed a law banning further electronic billboards on California streets and highways until  2012 to await the outcome of three studies into the potential traffic hazards posed by the intensely-lit screens. This week's federal report, which both the sides in the billboard wars hoped would validate their views, amounts to a major tease.

Feuer's law would halt the dramatic digital transformation which has begun hitting unsuspecting neighborhoods in Los Angeles, San Francisco and other cities. Los Angeles City Council members quietly approved over 800 digital billboards in virtually every neighborhood of L.A. , without public input. The most controversial appeared without notice in Silver Lake, the Hollywood Hills and around Westwood.  In December, the city council approved a watered down, three-month moratorium halting the installations of digital billboards that had begun sprouting up — and enraging residents.

LA Weekly