The Gilbert Town Council proved its worth as caretakers of the town’s seven miles of freeway frontage Tuesday, when it refused to cave in to pressure for allowing flashy electronic signs along the Loop 202.
We hope this will provide an occasion for leaders of other East Valley cities to more closely examine one of the great questions of our young century: Can drivers take any more distraction, especially at 70 mph? Many cities have been willing to gamble that in today’s information-saturated age, people are able to gaze at and ignore flashing lights, words and video images at will, welcoming huge digital displays after shunning old-school billboards for decades.
So far, most examples of this new breed function as on-site advertising, including the JumboTron-style signs just down the Santan Freeway for Chandler’s auto mall and the more modest digital displays at Mesa Riverview. Tempe Marketplace’s digital billboards go even further into the past, located next to a major center but not necessarily hawking anything available at that center. These don’t incorporate any animation, but the ads change every eight seconds.
These displays are getting noticed across America as well, as cities debate these signs’ costs and benefits, using either Times Square or the Las Vegas Strip as a reference point, depending on geography.
The list of studies proving the dangers of distracted driving is longer than most cell phone bills. Yet no large, definitive study has determined whether electronic billboards in particular cause accidents, allowing their backers and detractors to argue ad nauseam.
The Federal Highway Administration, which released its most recent noncommittal overview of the issue on Sept. 11, 2001, has agreed to step back into the fray with a more comprehensive study. But the results may not be in until 2009, according to a March article in the Christian Science Monitor.
This research may or may not settle the issue, but we are hopeful that local officials will use due caution — more than most have up to this point — when someone applies for a permit to build one of these things next to a freeway. We don’t usually appreciate it when government tells individuals what they can or can’t build on their property, or what an advertisement can or can’t say. But government’s proper function is to ensure public safety, and it would seem that one way to accomplish that might be not to allow private interests to install what amounts to giant TV sets next to freeways.