John Wyman: Digital billboards put us on a dangerous road

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Billboards are stacked along the 600 South offramp from I-15 in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, March 13, 2018.

How would you like to be kept awake by a gigantic 672-square-foot screen beaming advertisements through your windows until midnight? Do you enjoy swerving around distracted drivers on your daily commute? If yes, Senate Bill 61 is for you.

The vote on SB61 is only days away. If it succeeds, SB61 would permit billboard companies to turn all their existing billboards into bright electronic video screens that flash new messages every eight seconds. Overnight, our billboards would turn into humongous TVs, only we can’t choose where to put them, when to change the channel, and they only show commercials.

Right now, the only remote control with an “off” button for these billboard TVs rests in the hands of the Utah Senate. If your representative supports SB61, they are signing away taxpayer dollars to support the billboard industry’s brazen attempt to chase profits while chasing away our local businesses and endangering our drivers.

SB61 asks us to pay for the billboard company’s lost profits and court fees when a city tries to remove a noncomplying sign. It’s like the billboard companies are spilling spaghetti sauce on our best clothes and asking that we pay for their dinner and dessert.

If we happen to be dining on spaghetti at the elegant Italian restaurant near my home on 900 South, we’ll notice that our outdoor seating is underneath an approximately 400-square-foot billboard picturing a presumably dead young man next to the message: “Heroin. Pills. It all kills.”

Marco Stevanoni, the restaurant owner, is understandably vexed with the sign.

“Well, I hate it. I wish I could cut the legs off of it,” he said with exasperation, “I think we probably lose 15 to 20 percent of our business because of that billboard.”

If SB61 passes, Reagan Outdoor Advertising could convert that sign into a digital message board and downgrade Stevanoni’s restaurant atmosphere into something à la Chuck E. Cheese.

Beyond the obvious costs to local businesses, digital billboards also ask us to pay with human lives. Distraction and teen-involved crashes account for more than 25% of motor accidents in Utah and digital billboards could push that figure even higher.

In the research on distracted driving, any event that averts a driver’s gaze for over two seconds exceeds the threshold of an “acceptable” distraction. Ethically, this sounds to me like measuring an “acceptable” amount of murderers to invite to your child’s birthday party. When did preventable death become “acceptable’?

Anyhow, a recent Swedish study put the danger of new digital billboards to the test. The researchers recorded eye movements of real drivers traveling a stretch of highway containing conventional and electronic billboards. While drivers looked at the conventional billboards for a maximum of three seconds, they glued their eyes to the digital billboards for up to nine seconds while waiting for the digital billboard to change. Consistent with other research, teenage drivers were found to be the most distracted.

The Swedish government responded to the study by promptly banning all electronic billboards along their roadways.

By defeating SB61, Utah can at the very least press pause on the reckless expansion of the billboard industry. It is time for us to press pause and consider how to protect our reputation as a beautiful, business-friendly, and safe place to live. If you agree, please email your representative and share your urgent concern about digital billboards and SB61.

John Wyman

John Wyman is a Salt Lake City resident and a graduate student in the Masters of Social Work program at the University of Utah.