Connecticut Lawmakers Consider Changes to Digital Billboards
Our public bureaucrats don’t normally pay much attention to matters involving seconds. (At least, not when you’re standing in line at the DMV or waiting for your income tax refund check to arrive.)

There is one area, however, where state and federal experts seem to think two seconds can make a difference, and that’s in electronic billboard advertising.

The numbers of those digital billboards have exploded in recent years and now more than 4,000 of those bad boys are now flashing their “come hither” and “buy this now” messages across the U.S. (There are only about 20 in Connecticut at the moment, but that seems likely to change in the future.)

They’ve also become the focus of local and national complaints about light pollution, and the uglification of America. At the same time, these New Age ad vehicles have drawn praise from law enforcement types for their assistance in hunting down evil-doers like the Boston bombers.

Those two seconds that have attracted the attention of federal and state officials concern the issue of whether these things flashing multiple ads all the time have become safety hazards by distracting drivers.

Connecticut lawmakers are right now considering an earth-shaking piece of legislation that would increase from six seconds to eight seconds the time an individual ad has to stay up on one of those digital screens along our highways.

Apparently, according to the Federal Highway Administration, changing those ads quicker than every eight seconds could be a dangerous distraction for drivers.

“We concur with that,” says Kevin Nursick, a spokesman for the Connecticut Department of Transportation. “Six seconds is a little too frequent in terms of distractions.”

Max Ashburn of the non-profit group Scenic America scoffs at the idea that this sort of change could make any difference whatsoever.

“The difference between six seconds and eight seconds seems to be negligible,” says Ashburn, a spokesman for this non-profit organization opposed to the proliferation of electronic billboards. “Why not make it six minutes or six hours?”

In January, Scenic America filed a federal lawsuit charging the U.S. government with violating the Highway Beautification Act by letting these electronic ad devices to spring up all along federal highways.

The lawsuit charges that a 2007 change in Federal Highway Administration guidelines for electronic signs ignores the federal law’s protections against “intermittent commercial message lighting” along our interstates. Ashburn says the “Highway Beautification Act has now become “essentially a billboard protection act.”

“These billboards devalue private property, distract drivers, tarnish the beauty of our natural and built landscapes and negatively impact the quality of life for many people,” Mary Tracy, Scenic America’s president, said in a statement at the time the lawsuit was filed. Her organization wants to limit electronic billboards to a single message per day – something the ad industry is fighting like hell.

Connecticut’s digital billboard babies are right now blinking out their LED ads along I-91, I-84 and I-91, outside Hartford, New Haven, Bridgeport, and down through Fairfield County. At present, those electronic signs represent a tiny proportion of the approximately 1,200 billboards that have permits from the DOT, but most ad experts expect that electronics are the wave of our billboarding future.

Billboards as visual commercial pollution have been controversial for a long time. Alaska, Maine, Vermont, Hawaii all have longstanding billboard bans. Montana has a moratorium on electronic billboards, according to Scenic America, and there are local bans in cities and towns from Los Angeles to Houston to Baltimore.

When M. Jodi Rell was governor of Connecticut in 2008, she wanted to get rid of all highway billboards in this state as being downright ugly. She had to settle for an executive order requiring the state to get rid of all billboards on state property.

The only problem was there are only 100 or so of the signs on state land, mainly along the rail corridors, and most of those have leasing agreements that won’t run out until 2014 or 2016, DOT officials say.

A few signs, the ones that had contracts that were up for renewal or cancellation, have been moved off state property.

“It didn’t make a lot of sense to us,” says Stephen Hebert of the Connecticut branch of Lamar Advertising Company, one of the nation’s biggest billboard outfits, “but we complied.”