It seems like a no-brainer: the more distractions and potential distractions on the road for drivers, the more accidents and potential for accidents there will be. Increasingly we’re hearing about the dangers of texting while driving and other driver distractions, and legislators continue to introduce laws and regulations to combat distracted driving.
And yet, with so much focus on limiting use of our hand-held screens, we still continue to see new, giant screens along our roadways. Advertising everything from fast food and lodging to retail businesses and lawyers, billboards are erected with one purpose: to grab drivers’ attention.
Billboard opponents point to two main issues: first and foremost, driver safety, though recent studies linking billboards and traffic incidents have been problematic; and second, the “visual pollution” of the signs, which detract from the trees and other natural foliage lining our roadways. In many cases, trees must be removed to make room for the large, steel posts.
For example, according to a recent Charlotte Observer article, the city of Charlotte protested a 2012 state law that gave billboard companies more leeway to cut down trees and other vegetation in DOT-owned rights of way along highways, and earlier this year, the city said the state had received 162 requests from billboard companies to cut down trees in the city. About 4,700 trees had been chopped down already, according to the article.
So even with compelling reasons to limit or ban billboards, why do many state and local legislators hesitate to do so? Some legislators, as well as advertisers of course, argue that billboards generate business, so limiting them will damage local economy. Others say limits infringe on the free market. And then there are the politics—many politicians receive campaign support from businesses who use billboards.
A handful of states actually have banned billboards altogether, and others have instituted “cap and reduce” programs to limit the total number of signs with the intent to reduce that number over time, but most state governments are not so tough, leaving billboard regulation to the local governments. In the Carolinas, there are regulations for billboard content (prohibiting obscene or offensive content) and billboard size, spacing, lighting and construction parameters and regulations requiring permits, but beyond that things get tricky.
Though technology has evolved, making billboards more dynamic and even digital, the billboard issue is not a new one. In 1965 Congress passed the Highway Beautification Act, which was championed by then-First Lady Johnson and sought to limit the spread of billboards along federally funded highways by pressuring the states to impose regulations on their sizes, lighting and spacing. Though progress has been made over the last 40 years, there is no clear, uniform direction for the more than ½ million billboards country-wide.