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This study examines where drivers look when driving past commercial electronic variable message signs (CEVMS), standard billboards, or no off-premise advertising. The results and conclusions are presented in response to the three research questions listed below:
This study follows a Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) review of the literature on the possible distracting and safety effects of off-premise advertising and CEVMS in particular. The review considered laboratory studies, driving simulator studies, field research vehicle studies, and crash studies. The published literature indicated that there was no consistent evidence showing a safety or distraction effect due to off-premise advertising. However, the review also enumerated potential limitations in the previous research that may have resulted in the finding of no distraction effects for off-premise advertising. The study team recommended that additional research be conducted using instrumented vehicle research methods with eye tracking technology.
The eyes are constantly moving and they fixate (focus on a specific object or area), perform saccades (eye movements to change the point of fixation), and engage in pursuit movements (track moving objects). It is during fixations that we take in detailed information about the environment. Eye tracking allows one to determine to what degree off-premise advertising may divert attention away from the forward roadway. A finding that areas containing CEVMS result in significantly more gazes to the billboards at a cost of not gazing toward the forward roadway would suggest a potential safety risk. In addition to measuring the degree to which CEVMS may distract from the forward roadway, an eye tracking device would allow an examination of the duration of fixations and dwell times (multiple sequential fixations) to CEVMS and standard billboards. Previous research conducted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) led to the conclusion that taking your eyes off the road for 2 seconds or more presents a safety risk. Measuring fixations and dwell times to CEVMS and standard billboards would also allow a determination as to the degree to which these advertising signs lead to potentially unsafe gaze behavior.
Most of the literature concerning eye gaze behavior in dynamic environments suggests that task demands tend to override visual salience (an object that stands out because of its physical properties) in determining attention allocation. When extended to driving, it would be expected that visual attention will be directed toward task-relevant areas and objects (e.g., the roadway, other vehicles, speed limit signs) and that other salient objects, such as billboards, would not necessarily capture attention. However, driving is a somewhat automatic process and conditions generally do not require constant, undivided attention. As a result, salient stimuli, such as CEVMS, might capture driver attention and produce an unwanted increase in driver distraction. The present study addresses this concern.
This study used an instrumented vehicle with an eye tracking system to measure where drivers were looking when driving past CEVMS and standard billboards. The CEVMS and standard billboards were measured with respect to luminance, location, size, and other relevant variables to characterize these visual stimuli extensively. Unlike previous studies on digital billboards, the present study examined CEVMS as deployed in two United States cities. These billboards did not contain dynamic video or other dynamic elements, but changed content approximately every 8 to 10 seconds. The eye tracking system had nearly a 2-degree level of resolution that provided significantly more accuracy in determining what objects the drivers were looking at compared to an earlier naturalistic driving study. This study assessed two data collection efforts that employed the same methodology in two cities.
In each city, the study examined eye glance behavior to four CEVMS, two on arterials and two on freeways. There were an equal number of signs on the left and right side of the road for arterials and freeways. The standard billboards were selected for comparison with CEVMS such that one standard billboard environment matched as closely as possible that of each of the CEVMS. Two control locations were selected that did not contain off-premise advertising, one on an arterial and the other on a freeway. This resulted in 10 data collection zones in each city that were approximately 1,000 feet in length (the distance from the start of the data collection zone to the point that the CEVMS or standard billboard disappeared from the data collection video).
In Reading, Pennsylvania, 14 participants drove at night and 17 drove during the day. In Richmond, Virginia, 10 participants drove at night and 14 drove during the day. Calibration of the eye tracking system, practice drive, and the data collection drive took approximately 2 hours per participant to accomplish.
The following is a summary of the study results and conclusions presented in reference to the three research questions the study aimed to address.
Do CEVMS attract drivers' attention away from the forward roadway and other driving relevant stimuli?
Do glances to CEVMS occur that would suggest a decrease in safety?
Do drivers look at CEVMS more than at standard billboards?
The present data suggest that the drivers in this study directed the majority of their visual attention to areas of the roadway that were relevant to the task at hand (e.g., the driving task). Furthermore, it is possible, and likely, that in the time that the drivers looked away from the forward roadway, they may have elected to glance at other objects in the surrounding environment (in the absence of billboards) that were not relevant to the driving task. When billboards were present, the drivers in this study sometimes looked at them, but not such that overall attention to the forward roadway decreased.
It also should be noted that, like other studies in the available literature, this study adds to the knowledge base on the issues examined, but does not present definitive answers to the research questions investigated.