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The Possible Effects of Commercial Electronic Variable Message Signs (CEVMS) on Driver Attention and Distraction

1.0 Introduction

The present report reviews research concerning the possible effects of Commercial Electronic Variable Message Signs (CEVMS) used for outdoor advertising on driving safety. The report consists of an update of earlier published work by Farbry et al., which consists of an investigation of applicable research methods and techniques, recommendations for future research, and an extensive bibliography.(1) The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) has evaluated possible safety effects of CEVMS in two previous studies. The first study was completed in 1980 and the second in 2001.(1,2) Since then, CEVMS technology has evolved, in particular the expanded use of digital Light Emitting Diode (LED) arrays, as well as the implementation of new programmable formats and messages. The present report concentrates on identifying potential factors that may contribute to determining whether there are any significant safety concerns or distraction effects with regards to CEVMS used for outdoor advertising. Throughout the present report, the acronym CEVMS will be employed to refer to both the singular and plural case.

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1.1 Basic Research Question

The basic research question being addressed in this report is whether the presence of CEVMS along the roadway is associated with a reduction in driving safety for the public. Increases in vehicle crashes along a certain portion of the roadway are generally regarded as an indication of a possible safety concern. Thus, the measurement of crash rates in the vicinity of CEVMS in comparison with crash rates at matched control locations without CEVMS is one possible way to determine possible safety impacts. But, the crashes are rare multicausal events which are difficult to measure. Therefore, measurements of driving behavior in near-crash situations are sometimes taken as a substitute for crashes. These safety surrogate measures may then be generalized to other driving behaviors that represent possible precursors of crashes - like sudden braking, sharp swerving, or traffic conflicts - even though no crash occurs. Usually, because these safety surrogate measures are more frequent and easier to measure, they are often employed instead of or in addition to crashes. Thus, determining the frequency of occurrence of certain relevant safety surrogate driving behaviors in the vicinity of CEVMS in comparison with the frequency of occurrence of such behaviors at matched control locations without CEVMS is another possible way to determine possible safety impacts. The validity of using such safety surrogate measures rests on the assumption that they are related to actual vehicle crashes, which seems intuitively reasonable but has not been conclusively demonstrated.

There is another approach to determining the possible safety impact of CEVMS. This approach is based upon the abstract psychological constructs of driver attention and distraction. A driver must devote a certain amount of attention to the driving task at hand, and sufficient distraction from that driving task could be associated with the higher risk of a crash. The measurement of driver eye glance behavior is often taken as an indirect indicator of attention. Thus, the driver's eye glances should be concentrated in the region of the roadway ahead, and any frequent or long eye glances away from this region toward other objects, including CEVMS, could be regarded as an indication of possible driver distraction. If the eye glances toward a certain object and away from the roadway ahead are sufficiently frequent or sufficiently long to exceed criteria established for safe driving, this outcome can be taken as an indication of a possible safety impact. The validity of using eye glance behavior measures in this manner rests on two assumptions: that eye glances are related to attention and/or distraction and that there are generally accepted safety criteria for excessive eye glances away from the roadway ahead. These assumptions are not universally accepted.

In summary, the basic research question is whether the presence of CEVMS along the roadway is associated with a reduction in driving safety for the public. The three fundamental methods for answering this question include if there is an increase in crash rates in the vicinity of CEVMS, if there is an increase in near-crashes or safety surrogate measures in the vicinity of CEVMS, and if there are excessive eye glances away from the roadway ahead in the vicinity of CEVMS.

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1.2 Scope

In this report, a CEVMS will be defined as a self-luminous advertising sign which depicts any kind of light, color, or message change which ranges from static images to image sequences to full motion video. The CEVMS may also be referred to as an Electronic Billboard (EBB) or a Digital Billboard (DBB). The present report concentrates on the possible effects of CEVMS on driver attention, driver distraction, and roadway safety. The report is divided into 10 sections: Introduction, Literature Review Update, Key Factors and Measures, Research Strategies, Future Research Program, Recommended First Stage Study, Conclusions, References, Bibliography, and Appendices.
Investigating the possible safety effects of CEVMS is sufficiently complex so that no single experiment will answer all of the relevant scientific and engineering questions. The present report outlines a top-level broad program of potential future research, and it defines in greater detail three possible studies, any one of which could serve as a possible first step. After these discussions, a course of action is recommended. Although off-premise advertising signs constitute the main focus of FHWA attention, the influence of on-premise advertising signs will also be considered to create a more comprehensive and consistent research approach.

In parallel with the present project, a related study is being performed under National Cooperative Highway Research Program (NCHRP) Project 20-7 (256), titled "Safety Impacts of the Emerging Digital Display Technology for Outdoor Advertising Signs." Both the present project and the NCHRP study begin with the understanding that, despite years of research, there have been no definitive conclusions about the presence or strength of adverse safety impacts from CEVMS. The two projects differ in three significant ways. First, the NCHRP study is undertaking a broad, critical review of the research literature in this field. The present project is more focused on literature update oriented toward the identification of suitable independent and dependent variables for future research. Second, the NCHRP study is reviewing current regulations and guidelines for the control of roadside advertising that may exist in foreign countries to assess their applicability to U.S. highways and streets. Aside from mention in the literature review update portion, the present report does not directly address regulations and guidelines. Third, the NCHRP study will synthesize current research results and current regulations and guidance to recommend how State and local governments might enact reasonable temporary guidance for the control of CEVMS within their own jurisdictions. Such guidance may be applicable on an interim basis pending the outcome of future, more conclusive research outlined in the present project. As a result, such interim guidance may need to change as new technical information is developed. The present report does not provide guidance to States on the control of CEVMS.

Updated: 9/5/2014
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