Coming to a highway near you

Americans aren’t big on subtlety. We like our issues spelled out in black or white, heroes and villains, for us or against. Parsing the finer points of life, well, that’s something we leave to the French.

This tendency holds true in Indiana, especially if we compare ourselves with other states. We look to our east or west and see mountain ranges and coastline, great forests and ancient deserts. Landscapes, in other words, that beg to be photographed and turned into postcards we can send back to Indiana in order to remind ourselves what natural beauty is supposed to look like.

The beauty of Indiana’s landscape is subtle. You might find it in the curve of a road or in the way sunlight falls through a canopy of oak trees. It sneaks up on you, but it’s there. The problem is that since Indiana’s landscape doesn’t proclaim itself in bold and dramatic ways, some people have decided they can do anything they want with it, especially if that means making a buck.

During the legislative session that just concluded, a bill, HB 1373, was passed and signed into law with little fanfare or public comment. This bill will allow for the installation of digital billboards along Indiana interstates, U.S. routes and state highways. Digital billboards are like giant plasma-screen TVs — visible for at least a half-mile, they’re bigger, brighter and more eye-popping than any other form of outdoor advertising, reportedly gobbling up 200,000 watts of power per hour. Most signs change messages every six seconds and since the content is digitally programmed, it can be changed weekly or even daily with the click of a mouse.

Digital boards allow sign companies to sell ad space to 10 times as many clients — and they’re 10 times as profitable. When Clear Channel Outdoor, one of this country’s biggest billboard suppliers, converted seven standard billboards to digital in Cleveland, it reported that revenue leapt from $300,000 to $3 million in the first year.

Digital billboards are currently allowed in 42 other states. State Rep. Dan Stevenson, a Democrat from Highland who sponsored HB 1373, sold digital billboards as a kind of public safety tool, saying they could be used to flash Amber Alerts and weather news, information already communicated by highway department signs and other media. In Indiana, digital billboards will begin going up in July.

Digital billboards make a lot of money for companies like Clear Channel, Lamar and CBS. But they come at a cost for the rest of us. In the first place, there are significant questions about their safety. A 2006 study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration coined what is called “the two second rule,” finding that taking your eyes off the road for more than two seconds for any reason not directly related to driving “significantly increased individual near crash/crash risk.” It takes at least six seconds for people to comprehend the messages flashed by digital signs. This exceeds the two second rule by a factor of three.

Billboard companies tell public safety officials their signs are not distracting while telling their clients that these same signs are impossible to ignore. They also claim that nobody has proven that digital signs increase traffic accidents. This is partially true; the problem is that no objective studies have shown digital signs to be safe. Indeed, the Federal Highway Administration announced in January that it will begin studying safety issues related to digital signs; the only problem is that results aren’t expected until 2009. By that time, industry analysts predict we could see almost 75,000 digital boards in the U.S. — there are roughly 500 now.

In Indiana, where so many of us have apparently decided there’s nothing better to look at, there are approximately 12,500 boards on 11,300 miles of interstates and state highways. Indianapolis, in particular, has been a favored location for advertisers who have even managed to plant boards in many residential neighborhoods.

It’s ironic that HB 1373 was passed at the same time Mayor Peterson has declared a green agenda for Indianapolis. Making the city a more beautiful and healthier place should certainly involve an examination of outdoor advertising and its impact on public safety and overall quality of life. While we can’t control what happens on roadways outside of town, the city can impose stricter regulations on what’s permitted here. And while outdoor advertisers are bound to say their signs show economic vitality, there is plenty of evidence, from Raleigh, N.C., to Houston, Texas, suggesting billboards are not only symptoms of urban blight, but that communities that tighten controls on outdoor advertising become more attractive to industry and tourism.

Fewer billboards indicate real growth. That’s because a community that puts common sense restrictions on outdoor advertising shows it considers itself a place worth seeing, where some things are not for sale. This message may be too subtle for digital billboard operators and the officials who cater to them. It will doubtless take the rest of us to set them straight.