Digital sign a distraction?

Published 11:21 am Thursday, May 5, 2011

Daily Herald editorial

The Austin Planning Commission ought to have a very compelling reason before it would approve installation of a digital billboard at the intersection of First Ave. SW and 12th St. SW. In particular, the commission must ask whether it is wise to add to the problem of distracted driving.

If, as promised, the billboard would change to include weather alerts, amber alerts and the like, mixed in with the usual advertising messages, it’s not hard to imagine that it will be pulling drivers’ attention away from their primary task. And whether it’s talking on the phone, texting or some other distraction, Americans have learned that bored drivers all too easily drift off task when provided an opportunity to do so. Why make it harder?

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If it were merely a matter of aesthetics, we’d be inclined to argue that free speech trumps all. But in this case, safety becomes an issue. Billboards are, after all, designed to attract drivers’ attention; if they don’t, then what’s the point? And lighted news about weather and crime would seem particularly likely to prove a distraction.

Authorizing a device that is intended to distract drivers does not seem like a good idea, particularly at a time when the message to drivers from every other angle is “pay attention to the road.”