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Swedish study looks at safety of digital signs along highway
Reader wants to know why drivers can no longer make a right onto Butler Road when the light is red. Also, a study indicates that electronic billboards might be distracting ...

Date published: 1/7/2013


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By Scott Shenk

ARECENT STUDY on electronic billboards and signs brought to mind complaints from some area commuters who say the Virginia Department of Transportation's digital signs on Interstate 95 are distracting.

They say the signs cause drivers to slow down, which leads to backups.

VDOT handles numerous digital signs along I-95, primarily using them when incidents cause lane closures. They also have signs for northbound drivers telling them how long it'll take to get to places such as the beltway.

The study, conducted by the Swedish National Road and Transport Research Institute, did not come to any hard-and-fast conclusion that digital signs are a danger. But it did show that such signs have an effect on "gaze" behavior, more so than traditional signs.

In short, the study said digital signs can be distracting.

Scenic America, a nonprofit group against such things as billboards and cell towers, connected some dots to conclude that digital signs are a danger.

The group cited a 2006 Virginia Tech study finding that anything taking a driver's eyes off the road for more than two seconds increases the risk of a crash.

"This study validates what is common sense when it comes to digital billboards," Scenic America President Mary Tracy said in a release. "Bright, constantly-changing signs on the side of the road are meant to attract and keep the attention of drivers, and this study confirms that is exactly what they do."

It's debatable whether such signs (traffic signs, not digital ads) are a hazard or a benefit. Electronic traffic signs can be useful, tipping off a driver of a crash ahead, for instance.

Some complain that the signs on I-95 are worthless, but that's a debate for another day.

There was one especially telling sign from the Swedish study, though: After it was finished, the Swedish Transportation Administration ordered the digital signs removed. Seems the consensus was that the signs created too much glare and visual clutter.

Dear Scott: Why are drivers no longer allowed to turn right on red at the Falmouth intersection on just one side of it?

I noticed a few weeks ago that a sign suddenly appeared for drivers traveling north on U.S. 1 that want to make a right onto Butler Road.

The other three sides still allow right-on-red.

--Jason Kurtz

The change was made in July after fire and rescue crews raised a question of safety. They said there were instances of cars turning right on red and blocking the way for safety vehicles.

VDOT's Kelly Hannon said the issue will be eliminated when the intersection is reconstructed.

Demolition of the buildings there has started, but the project won't be finished until 2016.

When it's finished, though, Butler Road will have four lanes on the westbound side (headed toward U.S. 17) and the eastbound side will have two lanes.

In the meantime, northbound U.S. 1 drivers will have to continue to wait for a green light to turn onto Butler Road.

But, hey, it's better to spend a few more minutes at the light than to run head-on into a fire truck.

Scott Shenk: 540/374-5436
Email: sshenk@freelancestar.com