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Laws, Regs and Policy Guidance

Guidance On Off-Premise Changeable Message Signs

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U.S. Department of Transportation
Federal Highway Administration
Subject: INFORMATION: Guidance On Off-Premise Changeable Message Signs Date: September 25, 2007
ORIGINAL SIGNED BY: Gloria M. Shepherd
From: Gloria M. Shepherd
Associate Administrator for
Planning, Environment, and Realty
Reply to
To: Division Administrators
ATTN: Division Realty Professionals


The purpose of this memorandum is to provide guidance to Division Realty Professionals concerning off-premises changeable message signs adjacent to routes subject to requirements for effective control under the Highway Beautification Act (HBA) codified at 23 U.S.C. 131. It clarifies the application of the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) July 17, 1996, memorandum on this subject. This office may provide further guidance in the future as a result of additional information received through safety research, stakeholder input, and other sources.

Pursuant to 23 CFR 750.705, a State DOT is required to obtain the FHWA Division approval of any changes to its laws, regulations, and procedures to implement the requirements of its outdoor advertising control program. A State DOT should request and the Division offices should provide a determination as to whether the State should allow off-premises changeable Electronic Variable Message Signs (CEVMS) adjacent to controlled routes, as required by our delegation of responsibilities under 23 CFR 750.705(j). The Divisions that already have formally approved CEVMS use on HBA controlled routes, as well as, those that have not yet issued a decision, should re-evaluate their position in light of the following considerations. The decision of the Division should be based upon a review and approval of a State's affirmation and policy that: (1) is consistent with the existing Federal/State Agreement (FSA) for the particular State, and (2) includes but is not limited to consideration of requirements associated with the duration of message, transition time, brightness, spacing, and location, submitted for the FHWA approval, that evidence reasonable and safe standards to regulate such signs are in place for the protection of the motoring public. Proposed laws, regulations, and procedures that would allow permitting CEVMS subject to acceptable criteria (as described below) do not violate a prohibition against "intermittent" or "flashing" or "moving" lights as those terms are used in the various FSAs that have been entered into during the 1960s and 1970s.

This guidance is applicable to conforming signs, as applying updated technology to nonconforming signs would be considered a substantial change and inconsistent with the requirements of 23 CFR 750.707(d)(5). As noted below, all of the requirements in the HBA and its implementing regulations, and the specific provisions of the FSAs, continue to apply.


The HBA requires States to maintain effective control of outdoor advertising adjacent to certain controlled routes. The reasonable, orderly and effective display of outdoor advertising is permitted in zoned or unzoned commercial or industrial areas. Signs displays and devices whose size, lighting and spacing are consistent with customary use determined by agreement between the several States and the Secretary, may be erected and maintained in these areas (23 U.S.C. § 131(d)). Most of these agreements between the States and the Secretary that determined the size, lighting and spacing of conforming signs were signed in the late 1960's and the early 1970's.

On July 17, 1996, the Office of Real Estate Services issued a memorandum to Regional Administrators to provide guidance on off-premise changeable message signs and confirmed that the FHWA has "always applied the Federal law 23 U.S.C. 131 as it is interpreted and implemented under the Federal regulations and individual FSAs." It was expressly noted that "in the twenty-odd years since the agreements have been signed, there have been many technological changes in signs, including changes that were unforeseen at the time the agreements were executed. While most of the agreements have not changed, the changes in technology require the State and the FHWA to interpret the agreements with those changes in mind." The July 17, 1996, memorandum primarily addressed tri-vision signs, which were the leading technology at the time, but it specifically noted that changeable message signs "regardless of the type of technology used" are permitted if the interpretation of the FSA allowed them. Further advances in technology and affordability of LED and other complex electronic message signs, unanticipated at the time the FSAs were entered into, require the FHWA to confirm and expand on the principles set forth in the July 17, 1996, memorandum.

The policy espoused in the July 17, 1996, memorandum was premised upon the concept that changeable messages that were fixed for a reasonable time period do not constitute a moving sign. If the State set a reasonable time period, the agreed-upon prohibition against moving signs is not violated. Electronic signs that have stationary messages for a reasonably fixed time merit the same considerations.


Changeable message signs, including Digital/LED Display CEVMS, are acceptable for conforming off-premise signs, if found to be consistent with the FSA and with acceptable and approved State regulations, policies and procedures.

This guidance does not prohibit States from adopting more restrictive requirements for permitting CEVMS to the extent those requirements are not inconsistent with the HBA, Federal regulations, and existing FSAs. Similarly, Divisions are not required to concur with State proposed regulations, policies, and procedures if the Division review determines, based upon all relevant information, that the proposed regulations, policies and procedures are not consistent with the FSA or do not include adequate standards to address the safety of the motoring public. If the Division Office has any question that the FSA is being fully complied with, this should be discussed with the State and a process to change the FSA may be considered and completed before such CEVMS may be allowed on HBA controlled routes. The Office of Real Estate Services is available to discuss this process with the Division, if requested.

If the Division accepts the State's assertions that their FSA permits CEVMS, in reviewing State-proposed regulations, policy and procedures for acceptability, the Divisions should consider all relevant information, including, but not limited to duration of message, transition time, brightness, spacing, and location, to ensure that they are consistent with their FSA and that there are adequate standards to address safety for the motoring public. The Divisions should also confirm that the State provided for appropriate public input, consistent with applicable State law and requirements, in its interpretation of the terms of their FSA as allowing CEVMS in accordance with their proposed regulations, policies, and procedures.

Based upon contacts with all Divisions, we have identified certain ranges of acceptability that have been adopted in those States that do allow CEVMS that will be useful in reviewing State proposals on this topic. Available information indicates that State regulations, policy and procedures that have been approved by the Divisions to date, contain some or all of the following standards:

Other standards that the States have found helpful to ensure driver safety include a default designed to freeze a display in one still position if a malfunction occurs; a process for modifying displays and lighting levels where directed by the State DOT to assure safety of the motoring public; and requirements that a display contain static messages without movement such as animation, flashing, scrolling, intermittent or full-motion video.


This guidance is intended to provide information to assist the Divisions in evaluating proposals and to achieve national consistency given the variations in FSAs, State law, and State regulations, policies and procedures. It is not intended to amend applicable legal requirements. Divisions are strongly encouraged to work with their State in its review of their existing FSAs and, if appropriate, assist in pursuing amendments to address proposed changes relating to CEVMS or other matters. In this regard, the Office of Realty Estate Services is currently reviewing the process for amending FSAs, as established in 1980, to determine appropriate revisions to streamline requirements while continuing to ensure there is adequate opportunity for public involvement.

For further information on guidance on Off-Premise Changeable Message Signs, you may contact the Office of Real Estate Services' "Point of Contact" serving your Division or the contact on this page.

Updated: 9/5/2014
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