Sign of the times? New billboard goes up

First of electronic billboards approved by city is on Highway 65
By: Jon Brines, Placer Herald correspondent
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With electronic billboards in their crosshairs, Scenic America, a nonprofit group, is critical of Rocklin for moving forward with a new sign at Five Star Boulevard and Highway 65. Crews from contractor Vesco worked on the finishing touches for the sign, the first of three approved for Rocklin last year.

“Sorry to hear that officials in Rocklin are going against the wishes of citizens by moving to allow these digital billboards,” said Scenic America Spokesman Max R. Ashburn. “It’s an unfortunate development that we’re seeing replicated in cities all over the country.”

Scenic America has chapters nationwide with the goal of preserving and enhancing the visual character of America’s communities that includes stopping electronic billboards from going up in communities around the country.

“The billboard industry is in a mad rush to put up digital signs wherever they can, and as you can imagine, it’s all about money,” Ashburn said. “They can now get revenue from seven or eight advertisers on a single sign, rather than just one.”

The city of Rocklin contracted $100,000 in annual revenue from Clear Channel Outdoors for three electronic signs on the freeways. The agreement calls for the removal of two old-fashioned billboards along the Rocklin side of Interstate 80 south of Rocklin Road. The new billboards are approved to go up at Mercedes-Benz of Rocklin frontage on I-80, another just north of the Blue Oaks Boulevard exit with Highway 65 and the third now up near Scandinavian Design on Five Star Boulevard near the Stanford Ranch Road exit of Highway 65.

The billboards will also be used to assist public safety for emergency notifications, including Amber Alerts.

The approval didn’t come without controversy, as dozens of concerned citizens expressed various points of opposition to the plan. Some called them “sky trash.”

Rocklin resident Rick Davis thinks the signs are ugly.

“We’re bombarded with much commercialism on a daily basis through the different media outlets we subscribe to that we’ve all become numb to it,” he said. “So instead of getting more creative, marketers have decided to just show us the same crap but make it bigger? Sad.”

A local chapter of the Sierra Club opposed the use of wetland near Blue Oaks converted for the sign usage. Even more citizens saw the signs as a dangerous distraction for drivers.

“In regards to safety, the primary objective of a giant flashing, pulsing electronic sign is to make you look away from the road,” Davis said. “How can that be a good thing?”

The safety questions garnered the only no vote from Councilmember George Magnuson during last year’s hearing.

Three months later, a new study published in the journal Traffic Injury Prevention concluded digital billboards attract and hold the gazes of drivers for far longer than a threshold that previous studies have shown to be dangerous.

The 2012 study, conducted by researchers at the Swedish National Road and Transport Research Institute and funded by the Swedish Transport Administration, found that drivers looked at digital billboards significantly longer than they did at other signs on the same stretch of road, with the digital signs often taking a driver’s eyes off the road for more than two seconds.

A well-regarded 2006 study by Virginia Tech for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that anything that takes a driver’s eyes off the road for more than two seconds greatly increases the risk of a crash. The study also found that nearly 80 percent of all crashes involved driver inattention just prior to (within three seconds) of the crash.

The Swedish study’s authors reasoned that it’s not surprising that digital billboards attract greater attention from drivers: The signs are brighter, visible from greater distances and display a constantly changing series of advertisements – in Rocklin about every six seconds. They concluded that digital billboards “have the potential ability to keep up the driver’s curiosity over an extended period of time.” Previous human behavior studies have shown that drivers are hardwired to notice bright, changing lights in their peripheral vision and to anticipate additional motion.

Jim Cullinan, vice president of communications for Clear Channel, said the Swedish study was “inconclusive” and even found the digital billboards in Sweden did not affect driver behavior.

There is no data billboards increase accidents, a representative for Cullinan told the City Council during the hearing regarding the signs.

Rocklin Mayor Diana Ruslin hasn’t seen the Swedish study, but downplayed the significance, as research was done on foreign roads. She stands by the decision the council made to approve the three signs.

“Staff presented council a thorough report regarding safety, traffic, sign brightness, light levels and luminance areas,” she said. “Council approved and supports this project. It will provide revenue to the city. Digital signs serve as a marketing tool, but also as a community and emergency messaging system.”

Los Angeles recently removed 100 such signs and cities moving to prohibit digital billboards include Denver, St. Louis, Indianapolis and Houston. This is in addition to the four states – Maine, Vermont, Alaska and Hawaii – that have moratoriums.

Ashburn said it’s not too late for concerned citizens to stop the other two signs from going up.

“As to what the citizens of Rocklin can do, like with any other injustice, they don’t have to take it,” he said. “The first step is to make their voices heard and if their representatives won’t listen, they need to organize in opposition. The key is to stop the signs from going up, because if they go up it will be very difficult to get them down.”

It’s unclear when construction will begin on the others. A permit application for the next electronic billboard sign has not yet been submitted to the city.