Roadside Eye Catchers

February 23/March 2, 2005
By Ted Smalley Bowen, Technology Research News

Next time you're cut off by an SUV jock who's slaloming across lanes while dialing a cell phone and swilling java and you start to wonder about natural selection, you might be onto something. Our innate distractibility and nonchalance about risk seem to be pushing us toward our collective limits.

And if in-car activities aren't enough to pull the modern motorist's attention off the road, the landscape is becoming more diverting by the day.

Few regulatory brakes have been applied to this accelerating build-up. While filling in gaps and resolving inconsistencies in traffic safety and behavioral research might bolster the case for restrictions, there seems to be enough evidence to justify a more cautious approach.

The convergence of public, commercial and private interests in this area, and the resulting tensions, reflect the wider debate over the interpretation and use of scientific research. Expressed as a flashing neon sign, it would alternately read "precautionary principle" and "laissez-faire".

Public spaces are verging on Blade Runner-like visual clutter. Electronic displays mounted on taxis and trucks vie with sign-wrapped busses, bus shelters plastered with ads, lighted store signs, and a profusion of billboards, many with revolving panels, flashing lights and video.

Technical advances will only make it easier to liven things up. Nanoscale components promise larger, cheaper, high-resolution video screens that are bound to find their way into signs and surfaces of all kinds.

We're already inundated with ads. Our daily sensory diet includes thousands of commercial images -- pop-up ads, animations and video embedded in Web content, TV's full arsenal of moving pictures, billboards and newer forms of advertising planted throughout the outdoor environment.

Thanks to this creative outpouring, outdoor advertising sales are booming - $4.35 billion for the first nine months of 2004, up 6.5 percent from the same period in 2003, according to the Outdoor Advertising Association of America, a trade group.

The advertising arms race has led to increasingly eye-grabbing designs, which for drivers means more potential distractions. But which signs pose a risk? To what extent can commercial signage be blamed for accidents? And what do we know about the nature of attention and distraction?

Research on the effects of roadside advertising on traffic safety goes back to the early 1950s, a few years before Congress green-lighted the vast expansion of the nation's highway system with the Interstate Highway Act of 1956.

While there's no definitive proof of a causal link between signage and accidents, there's much evidence of a correlation. Surveys (1, 2) of the literature show that signs and billboards can compromise traffic safety, especially at intersections and on curves. Flashing lights, motion, visual clutter, and novelty (the Times Square and Vegas Strip formula that's replicating far and wide) are implicated as hazards.

Some of the research on driver distractions bears out the intuitive notion that visual complexity compromises safety by forcing drivers to scan the environment longer for street signs, turns or landmarks.

Researchers are beginning to use eye-tracking devices to monitor drivers in traffic. One such Canadian study suggests that video signs are more distracting than static signs and can act as catalysts, increasing ad gazing of all types, even in unsafe situations.

The surveys also point out a dearth of recent research, especially on signs with rotating-panels and electronic displays. Some attempt has been made to extrapolate from research on cell phones and other distractions, but more applicable studies are needed.

Advances in VR technology should make it easier to study driver behavior in the lab.

In the category of overdue research are studies that consider the effects of visual distractions on young and old drivers, observe the effects of electronic signs in a variety of road configurations and conditions, determine a safe, manageable amount of information that can be displayed on an electronic sign, set standards for maintenance so that signs are legible, and examine the effects of animation, video, and moving panels on drivers.

It's a given that people are easily distracted, but how and why can be hard to pin down. Theories of attention point out relationships between mental excitation (or interest) and the ability to perform tasks -- we function best somewhere between boredom and over-stimulation. Still, as researchers studying reflective responses have noted, new or unexpected stimuli trigger involuntary responses. The more bored or unfocused we are, the more susceptible we are to these surprises.

Other researchers have identified modes of visual perception: a focal, or search mode that's narrow and specific, and an ambient mode that's a sort of default, not focused on anything in particular, but with better peripheral awareness.

Studies of distraction (1, 2) have found that computer users performing search tasks in the center of the screen are slowed when objects appear on the perimeter, even when they aren't consciously aware of them. The more peripheral objects, the greater the distraction.

Researchers have also found that new, moving and looming objects command attention; the onset of motion triggers overriding or urgent attention, possibly tapping the survival instinct; and changes in color can capture attention.

None of this proves that ads cause accidents, but behavioral mechanisms obviously come into play when drivers encounter roadside signs. And the intuitive point that content can be a factor in drawing attention is beginning to be tested.

What to make of this? Even allowing that this is a complex issue and the relevant research is a bit sparse, we seem to be relying on the general population as guinea pigs. It looks like the press of new technologies, products and advertising opportunities is getting ahead of public safety and planning authorities.

The regulatory picture is complex. States regulate outdoor advertising adjacent to interstate and state roads according to guidelines set under the 1965 Highway Beautification Act. State laws are based on the federal guidelines, but vary. Local jurisdictions can enact their own regulations, or adopt state regulations.

In the tug of war over regulation, the laissez-faire argument boils down to demanding proof of a direct, causal link between commercial signs and accidents, whereas courts have generally held that state and local governments can regulate in the interest of traffic safety, said Marya Morris, a senior research associate at the American Planning Association.

Planners are scrambling to keep up with the latest high-tech flashiness, but resources aren't on their side. As animation and video migrate to billboards and other signage, the newer regulations still deal with motion in terms of imagechanges per minute. Relatively few states have a legal definition of an electronic sign. "The technology has outstripped planners' ability to determine appropriate regulation," Morris said. "It's a head-scratcher, how to allow some businesses to use this kind of machine, but within reason."

And if signs along interstates and some state roadsare found to violate the rules, your cash-strapped local government is likely to have to pony up the removal costs (or leave the signs up), thanks to 1970s revisions of the Highway Beautification Act and similar state provisions.

So, as new eye-catching ads crowd your vistas, delighting and diverting you and your fellow motorists, you can take comfort in the notion that if that SUV finds your bumper, you won't be just another traffic statistic, but a data point.


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