A digital sign of the times

Digital billboard technology does not pose a threat to Minnesota roads.

Twin Cities motorists are in more danger than ever. At least that’s what many local alarmists would have us believe. The target of their ire is a crop of seemingly innocuous billboards that are utilizing digital images. The technologically advanced ads are not animated, yet Clear Channel, which operates the digital billboards, is in court to argue the safety and legality of its signs. Today’s driver has a wealth of distractions that have become ubiquitous in the last decade. Cell phones and iPods with video capability are among the modern threats on our highways. These new technologies may warrant a new breed of regulations, but digital billboards should not be the top priority.

The Twin Cities is home to eight of the new billboards. They appear to be slightly brighter-than-average signs that simply morph into different ads every eight seconds. The Minnesota Department of Transportation cited studies that show six-second changes as being distracting; longer intervals are not. They are only slightly more distracting than the lighted display on the top of the Target Corporation headquarters in downtown Minneapolis.

If there is an obvious increase in traffic accidents in the vicinity of the newly installed billboards, then it will be painfully clear that it was just one technology too many. The chances of that seem doubtful. The stimulating world has made us apt multitaskers even to the point of fostering attention deficit disorder. The billboards seem startling now, but it is only a matter of time before drivers are aware of them and they become part of the background.

It is, however, an appropriate time to start formulating regulations for these signs. The Twin Cities area was shocked when these arrived, and St. Paul and Minnetonka panicked by forcing the electricity to be shut off. This irrational response has ended up in a court battle with Clear Channel. Laws should be created now to determine whether animation is allowed, the brightness of such signs, and the rate of ad changes. Nothing is going to stop this technology, so it would be advantageous to start preparing now.