The average person in a developed country sees between 250 and 20,000 advertising or marketing messages a day, depending on what type of media they consume, where they go, and what you count as an advertising and marketing message (e.g. is product packaging in a supermarket a marketing message). While surveys differ wildly, one of the ways those messages are delivered is via roadside billboards, advertising hoardings and signs. These come in many forms: posters, notices, placards, sandwich boards, pole signs, canopy signs, fascia signs, projecting signs, models, directional signs, captive balloons, flags, price markers, traffic signs, town and village name signs, and those things with flappy waving arms that no one knows what they’re called (it’s actually called an airdancer).
Obviously, the purpose of these is to distract your attention – there’s no point in having a sign if no one will look at it. But by distracting you from the road, does this make driving more dangerous? Some studies have found that in some cases it doesn’t. In the case of long, straight, empty, featureless roads (e.g. driving some of our motorways at night), the occasional billboard has been shown to perk up a driver’s attention, reducing fatigue. In cases where a driver is looking for an event or business, signage and advertising can help direct the driver quickly and efficiently without holding up traffic or directing their gaze for an extended period of time away from the road.
But a billboard in an already cluttered and busy road environment with multiple dangers (junctions, pedestrians, cyclists, etc), simply increases the cognitive load your brain must endure, lengthening your reaction times to dangerous situations. New digital billboards are even more distracting as our eyes are attracted to moving images much more readily than static images. Digital billboards are also more visible at night.
It can take upwards of two seconds to read and process a billboard. In that time you have travelled 27 metres at 30mph. That is enough distance for the car in front of you to have stopped and for you to have run into it before having a chance to get your foot to the brake.
Outdoor advertising can’t take all the blame for distractions, though. We are increasingly bombarded visual options. It’s possible to be distracted by a person on the street, a nice car or building, hunger, thirst, your cellphone, a passenger and more. We shouldn’t vilify billboards unless we make an effort to remove all possible distractions from vehicles.
Rules for roadside advertising
We have a free market economy and that means that, within reason, businesses are allowed to advertise and market their presence in order to compete. There’s an increased demand for advertising situated on the roadside that is targeted towards not only passing motorists, but pedestrians and cyclists, too. If we had no rules and no checks in place the roadside advertising landscape would become a cluttered and dangerous mess:
Roadside advertising should not:
- cause a danger to road users, e.g. by extending into the carriageway
- obstruct a road user’s vision
- mimic existing road signage or cause confusion about a road’s layout or direction, e.g. using a STOP sign in an advert
- cause unnecessary light pollution, i.e. there should be only enough light used to make the sign readable in darkness
- be allowed to fall into disrepair (i.e. should be kept clean and tidy, and safely secured)
- be placed in an area where permission has not been granted to show the sign.
Roadside advertising includes advertising signs that are permanent, removable or vehicle-mounted and located within the road boundaries or on private property but visible from the road. The Government produces this booklet which is an outdoor advertisements and signs guide for advertisers. It’s advisable to check it if you want to place an ad on the roadside as you may need the consent of an urban development corporation, your county council (or the London borough council), or National Park authority if it’s to be located in a national park.
Darren has owned several companies in the automotive, advertising and education industries. He has run driving theory educational websites since 2010.