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CEVMS and Driver Visual Behavior Study - Peer reviewed report


"The primary responsibility of the driver is to operate a motor vehicle safely. The task of driving requires full attention and focus. Drivers should resist engaging in any activity that takes their eyes and attention off of the road for more than a couple of seconds. In some circumstances even a second or two can make all the difference in a driver being able to avoid a crash." - US Department of Transportation(1)

The advent of electronic billboard technologies, in particular the digital Light-Emitting Diode (LED) billboard, has prompted a reevaluation of regulations for controlling outdoor advertising. An attractive quality of these LED billboards, which are hereafter referred to as Commercial Electronic Variable Message Signs (CEVMS), is that advertisements can change almost instantly. Furthermore, outdoor advertising companies can make these changes from a central remote office. Of concern is whether or not CEVMS may attract drivers' attention away from the primary task (driving) in a way that compromises safety.

The current Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) guidance recommends that CEVMS should not change content more frequently than once every 8 seconds.(2) However, according to Scenic America, the basis of the safety concern is that the "...distinguishing trait..." of a CEVMS "... is that it can vary while a driver watches it, in a setting in which that variation is likely to attract the drivers' attention away from the roadway."(3)This study was conducted to provide the FHWA with data to determine if CEVMS capture visual attention differently than standard off-premise advertising billboards.


A 2009 review of the literature by Molino et al. for the FHWA failed to find convincing empirical evidence that CEVMS, as currently implemented, constitutes a safety risk greater than that of conventional vinyl billboards.(4) A great deal of work has been focused in this area, but the findings of these studies have been mixed.(4,5) A summary of the key past findings is presented here, but the reader is referred to Molino et al. for a comprehensive review of studies prior to 2008.(4)

Post-Hoc Crash Studies

Post-hoc crash studies use reviews of police traffic collision reports or statistical summaries of such reports in an effort to understand the causes of crashes that have taken place in the vicinity of some change to the roadside environment. In the present case, the change of concern is the introduction of CEVMS to the roadside or the replacement of conventional billboards with CEVMS.

The literature review conducted by Molino et al. did not find compelling evidence for a distraction effect attributable to CEVMS.(4) The authors concluded that all post-hoc crash studies are subject to certain weaknesses, most of which are difficult to overcome. For example, the vast majority of crashes are never reported to police; thus, such studies are likely to underreport crashes. Also, when crashes are caused by factors such as driver distraction or inattention, the involved driver may be unwilling or unable to report these factors to a police investigator. Another weakness is that police, under time pressure, are rarely able to investigate the true root causes of crashes unless they involve serious injury, death, or extensive property damage. Furthermore, to have confidence in the results, such studies need to collect comparable data before and after the change, and, in the after phase, at equivalent but unaffected roadway sections. Since crashes are infrequent events, data collection needs to span extended periods of time both before and after introduction of the change. Few studies are able to obtain such extensive data.

Two recent studies by Tantala and Tantala examined the relationship between the presence of CEVMS and crash statistics in Richmond, Virginia, and Reading, Pennsylvania.(6,7) For the Richmond area, 7 years of crash data at 10 locations with CEVMS were included in the analyses. The study used a before-after methodology where most sites originally contained vinyl billboards (before) that were converted to CEVMS (after). The quantity of crash data was not the same for all locations and ranged from 1 year before/after to 3 years before/after. The study employed the Empirical Bayes (EB) method to analyze the data.(8) The results indicated that the total number of crashes observed was consistent with what would be statistically expected with or without the introduction of CEVMS. The analysis approach for Reading locations was much the same as for Richmond other than there were 20 rather than 10 CEVMS and 8 years of crash statistics. The EB method showed results for Reading that were very similar to those of Richmond.

The studies by Tantala and Tantala appear to address many of the concerns from Molino et al. regarding the weaknesses and issues associated with crash studies.(4,6,7) For example, they include crash comparisons for locations within multiple distances of each CEVMS to address concerns about the visual range used in previous analyses. They used EB analysis techniques to correct for regression-to-mean bias. Also, the EB method would better reflect crash rate changes due to changes in average daily traffic and the interactions of these with the roadway features that were coded in the model. The studies followed approaches that are commonly used in post-hoc crash studies, though the results would have been strengthened by including before-after results for non-CEVMS locations as a control group.

Field Investigations

Field investigations include unobtrusive observation, naturalistic driving studies, on-road instrumented vehicle investigations, test track experiments, driver interviews, surveys, and questionnaires. The following focuses on relevant studies that employed naturalistic driving and on-road instrumented vehicle research methods.

Lee, McElheny, and Gibbons undertook an on-road instrumented vehicle study on Interstate and local roads near Cleveland, Ohio.(9) The study looked at driver glance behavior in the vicinity of digital billboards, conventional billboards, comparison sites (sites with buildings and other signs, including digital signs), and control sites (those without similar signage). The results showed that there were no differences in the overall glance patterns (percent eyes-on-road and overall number of glances) between the different sites. Drivers also did not glance more frequently in the direction of digital billboards than in the direction of other event types (conventional billboards, comparison events, and baseline events) but drivers did take longer glances in the direction of digital billboards and comparison sites than in the direction of conventional billboards and baseline sites. However, the mean glance length toward the digital billboards was less than 1,000 ms. It is important to note that this study employed a video-based approach for examining drivers' visual behavior, which has an accuracy of no better than 20 degrees.(10) While this technique is likely to be effective in assessing gross eye movements and looks that are away from the road ahead, it may not have sufficient resolution to discriminate what specific object the driver is looking at outside of the vehicle.

Beijer, Smiley, and Eizenman evaluated driver glances toward four different types of roadside advertising signs on roads in the Toronto, Canada, area.(11) The four types of signs were: (a) billboard signs with static advertisements; (b) billboard advertisements placed on vertical rollers that could rotate to show one of three advertisements in succession; (c) scrolling text signs with a minor active component, which usually consisted of a small strip of lights that formed words scrolling across the screen or, in some cases, a larger area capable of displaying text but not video; and (d) signs with video images that had a color screen capable of displaying both moving text and moving images. The study employed an on-road instrumented vehicle with a head-mounted eye tracking device. The researchers found no significant differences in average glance duration or the maximum glance duration for the various sign types; however, the number of glances was significantly lower for billboard signs than for the roller bar, scrolling text, and video signs.

Smiley, Smahel, and Eizenman conducted a field driving study that employed an eye tracking system that recorded drivers' eye movements as participants drove past video signs located at three downtown intersections and along an urban expressway.(12) The study route included static billboards and video advertising. The results of the study showed that on average 76 percent of glances were to the road ahead. Glances at advertising, including static billboards and video signs, constituted 1.2 percent of total glances. The mean glance durations for advertising signs were between 500 ms and 750 ms, although there were a few glances of about 1,400 ms in duration. Video signs were not more likely than static commercial signs to be looked at when headways were short; in fact, the reverse was the case. Furthermore, the number of glances per individual video sign was small, and statistically significant differences in looking behavior were not found.

Kettwich, Kartsen, Klinger, and Lemmer conducted a field study where drivers' gaze behavior was measured with an eye tracking system.(13) Sixteen participants drove an 11.5 mile (18.5 km) route comprised of highways, arterial roads, main roads, and one-way streets in Karlsruhe, Germany. The route contained advertising pillars, event posters, company logos, and video screens. Mean gaze duration for the four types of advertising was computed for periods when the vehicle was in motion and when it was stopped. Gaze duration while driving for all types of advertisements was under 1,000 ms. On the other hand, while the vehicle was stopped, the mean gaze duration for video screen advertisements was 2,750 ms. The study showed a significant difference between gaze duration while driving and while stationary: gaze duration was affected by the task at hand. That is, drivers tended to gaze longer while the car was stopped and there were few driving task demands.

The previously mentioned studies estimated the duration of glances to advertising and computed mean values of less than 1,000 ms. Klauer et al., in his analysis of the 100-Car Naturalistic Driving Study, concluded that glances away from the roadway for any purpose lasting more than 2,000 ms increase near-crash/crash risk by at least two times that of normal, baseline driving.(14) Klauer et al. also indicated that short, brief glances away from the forward roadway for the purpose of scanning the driving environment are safe and actually decrease near-crash/crash risk.(14) Using devices in a vehicle that draw visual attention away from the forward roadway for more than 2,000 ms (e.g., texting) is incompatible with safe driving. However, for external stimuli, especially those near the roadway, the evaluation of eye glances with respect to safety is less clear since peripheral vision would allow the driver to still have visual access to the forward roadway.

Laboratory Studies

Laboratory investigations related to roadway safety can be classified into several categories: driving simulations, non-driving-simulator laboratory testing, and focus groups. The review of relevant laboratory studies by Molino et al. did not show conclusive evidence regarding the distracting effects of CEVMS.(4) Moreover, the authors concluded that present driving simulators do not have sufficient visual dynamic range, image resolution, and contrast ratio capability to produce the compelling visual effect of a bright, photo-realistic LED-based CEVMS against a natural background scene. The following is a discussion of a driving simulator study conducted after the publication of Molino et al.(4) The study focused on the effects of advertising on driver visual behavior.

Chattington, Reed, Basacik, Flint, and Parkes conducted a driving simulator study in the United Kingdom (UK) to evaluate the effects of static and video advertising on driver glance behavior.(15) The researchers examined the effects of advertisement position relative to the road (left, right, center on an overhead gantry, and in all three locations simultaneously), type of advertisement (static or video), and exposure duration of the advertisement. (The paper does not provide these durations in terms of time or distance. The exposure duration had to do with the amount of time or distance that the sign would be visible to the driver.) For the advertisements presented on the left side of the road (recall that drivers travel in the left lane in the UK), mean glance durations for static and video advertisements were significantly longer (approximately 650 to 750 ms) when drivers experienced long advertisement exposure as opposed to medium and short exposures. Drivers looked more at video advertisements (about 2 percent on average of the total duration recorded) than at static advertisements (about 0.75 percent on average). In addition, the location of the advertisements had an effect on glance behavior. When advertisements were located in the center of the road or in all three positions simultaneously, the glance durations were about 1,000 ms and were significantly longer than for signs placed on the right or left side of the road. For advertisements placed on the left side of the road, there was a significant difference in glance duration between static (about 400 ms) and video (about 800 ms). Advertisement position also had an effect on the proportion of time that a driver spent looking at an advertisement. The percentage of time looking at advertisements was greatest when signs were placed in all three locations, followed by center location signs, then the left location signs, and finally the right location signs. Drivers looked more at the video advertisements relative to the static advertisements when they were placed in all three locations, placed on the left, and placed on the right side of the road. The center placement did not show a significant difference in percent of time spent looking between static and video.


The results from these key studies offer some insight into whether CEVMS pose a visual distraction threat. However, these same studies also reveal some inconsistent findings and potential methodological issues that are addressed in the current study. The studies conducted by Smiley et al. showed drivers glanced forward at the roadway about 76 percent of the time in the presence of video and dynamic signs where a few long glances of approximately 1,400 ms were observed.(12) However, the video and dynamic signs used in these studies portray moving objects that are not present in CEVMS as deployed in the United States. In another field study employing eye tracking, Kettwich et al. found that gaze duration while driving for all types of advertisements that they evaluated was less than 1,000 ms; however, when the vehicle was stopped, mean gaze duration for advertising was as high as 2,750 ms.(16) Collectively, these studies did not demonstrate that the advertising signs detracted from drivers' glances forward at the roadway in a substantive manner while the vehicle was moving.

In contrast, the simulator study by Chattington et al. demonstrated that dynamic signs showing moving video or other dynamic elements may draw attention away from the roadway.(15) Furthermore, the location of the advertising sign on the road is an important factor in drawing drivers' visual attention. Advertisements with moving video placed in the center of the roadway on an overhead gantry or in all three positions (right, left, and in the center) simultaneously are very likely to draw glances from drivers.

Finally, in a study that examined CEVMS as deployed in the United States, Lee et al. did not show any significant effects of CEVMS on driver glance behavior.(9) However, the methodology that was used likely did not employ sufficient sensitivity to determine at what specific object in the environment a driver was looking.

None of these studies combined all necessary factors to address the current CEVMS situation in the United States. Those studies that used eye tracking on real roads had animated and video-based signs, which are not reflective of current off-premise CEVMS practice in the United States.


Based on an extensive review of the literature, Molino et al. concluded that the most effective method to use in an evaluation of the effects of CEVMS on driver visual behavior was the instrumented field vehicle method that incorporated an eye tracking system.(4) The present study employed such an instrumented field vehicle with an eye tracking system and examined the degree to which CEVMS attract drivers' attention away from the forward roadway.

The following presents a brief overview and discussion of studies using eye tracking methodology with complex visual stimuli, especially in natural environments (walking, driving, etc.). The review by Molino et al. recommended the use of this type of technology and method; however, a discussion laying out technical and theoretical issues underlying the use of eye tracking methods was not presented.(4) This background is important for the interpretation of the results of the studies conducted here.

Standard and digital billboards are often salient stimuli in the driving environment, which may make them conspicuous. Cole and Hughes define attention conspicuity as the extent to which a stimulus is sufficiently prominent in the driving environment to capture attention. Further, Cole and Hughes state that attention conspicuity is a function of size, color, brightness, contrast relative to surroundings, and dynamic components such as movement and change.(17) It is clear that under certain circumstances image salience or conspicuity can provide a good explanation of how humans orient their attention.

At any given moment a large number of stimuli reach our senses, but only a limited number of them are selected for further processing. In general, attention can be focused on a stimulus because it is important for achieving some goal, or because the properties of the stimulus can attract the attention of the observer independent of their intentions (e.g., a car horn may elicit an orienting response). When the focus of attention is goal directed, it is referred to as top-down. When the focus of attention is principally a function of stimulus attributes, it is referred to as bottom-up.(18)

In general, billboards (either standard or CEVMS) are not relevant to the driving task but are presumably designed to be salient stimuli in the environment where they may draw a driver's attention. The question is to what degree CEVMS draw a driver's attention away from driving-relevant stimuli (e.g., road ahead, mirrors, and speedometer) and is this different from a standard billboard? In his review of the literature Wachtel leads one to consider CEVMS as stimuli in the environment where attention to them would be drawn in a bottom-up manner; that is, the salience of the billboards would make them stand out relative to other stimuli in the environment and drivers would reflexively look at these signs.(19) Wachtel's conclusions were in reference to research by Theeuwees who employed simple letter stimulus arrays in a laboratory task.(20) Research using simple visual stimuli in a laboratory environment are very useful for testing different theories of perception, but often lack direct application to tasks such as driving. The following discusses research using complex visual stimuli and tasks that are more relevant to natural vision as experienced in the driving task.

A recent review of stimulus salience and eye guidance by Tatler et al. shows that most of the evidence for the capture of attention by the conspicuity of stimuli comes from research in which the stimulus is a simple visual search array or in which the target is uniquely defined by simple visual features.(21) In other words, these are laboratory studies that use letters, arrays of letters, or simple geometric patterns as the stimuli. Pure salience-based models are capable of predicting eye movement endpoint in simple displays, but are less successful for more complex scenes that contain task-relevant and task-irrelevant salient areas.(22,23)

Research by Henderson et al. using photographs of actual scenes showed that subjects looked at non-salient scene regions containing a search target and rarely looked at salient non-task-relevant regions of the scenes.(24) Salience of the stimulus alone was not a good predictor of where participants looked. Additional research by Henderson using photographs of real world scenes also showed that subjects fixated on regions of the pictures that provided task-relevant information rather than visually salient regions with no task-relevant information. However, Henderson acknowledges that static pictures have many shortcomings when used as surrogates for real environments.(25)

Land's review of eye movements in dynamic environments concluded that the eyes are proactive and typically seek out information required in the second before each new activity commences.(26) Specific tasks (e.g., driving) have characteristic but flexible patterns of eye movement that accompany them, and these patterns are similar between individuals. Land concluded that the eyes rarely visit objects that are irrelevant to the task, and the conspicuity of objects is less important than the objects' roles in the task. In a subsequent review of eye movement and natural behavior, Land concluded that in a task that requires fixation on a sequence of specific objects, the capture of gaze by irrelevant salient objects would, in general, be an obtrusive nuisance.(22)

The literature examining gaze control under natural behavior suggests that it is principally top-down driven, or intentional.(24,25,26,22,21,27) However, top-down processing does not explain all gaze control or eye movements. For example, imagine driving down a two-lane country road and a deer jumps into the road. It is most likely that you will attend and react to this deer. Unplanned or unexpected stimuli capture our attention as we engage in complex natural tasks. Research by Jovancevic-Misic and Hayhoe showed that human gaze patterns are sensitive to the probabilistic nature of the environment.(28) In this study, participants' eye movement behavior was observed while walking among other pedestrians. The other pedestrians were confederates and were either safe, risky, or rogue pedestrians. When the study began, the risky pedestrian took a collision course with the participant 50 percent of the time, and the rogue pedestrian always assumed a collision course as he approached the participant, whereas the safe pedestrian never took a collision course. Midway through the study the rogue and safe pedestrians exchanged roles but the risky pedestrian role remained the same. The participants were not informed about the behavior of the other pedestrians. Participants were asked to follow a circular path for several laps and to avoid other pedestrians. The study showed that the participants modified their gaze behavior in response to the change in the other pedestrians' behavior. Jovancevic-Misic concluded that participants learned new priorities for gaze allocation within a few encounters and looked both sooner and longer at potentially dangerous pedestrians.(28)

Gaze behavior in natural environments is affected by expectations that are derived through long-term learning. Using a virtual driving environment, Shinoda et al. asked participants to look for stop signs while driving an urban route.(29) Approximately 45 percent of the fixations fell in the general area of intersections during the simulated drive, and participants were more likely to detect stop signs placed near intersections than those placed in the middle of a block. Over time, drivers have learned that stop signs are more likely to appear near intersections and, as a result, drivers prioritize their allocation of gazes to these areas of the roadway.

The Tatler et al. review of the literature concludes that in natural vision, a consistent set of principles underlies eye guidance. These principles include relevance or reward potential, uncertainty about the state of the environment, and learned models of the environment.(21) Salience of environmental stimuli alone typically does not explain most eye gaze behavior in naturalistic environments.

In sum, most of the literature concerning eye gaze behavior in dynamic environments suggests that task demands tend to override visual salience 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, etc.) and other salient objects, such as billboards, will 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 provide an unwarranted increase in driver distraction. The present study addresses this concern.

Research Questions

The present research evaluated the effects of CEVMS on driver visual behavior under actual roadway conditions in the daytime and at night. Roads containing CEVMS, standard billboards, and areas not containing off-premise advertising were selected. The CEVMS and standard billboards were measured with respect to luminance, location, size, and other relevant visual characteristics. The present study examined CEVMS as deployed in two United States cities. Unlike previous studies, the signs did not contain dynamic video or other dynamic elements. In addition, the eye tracking system used in this study has approximately a 2-degree level of resolution. This provided significantly more accuracy in determining what objects the drivers were looking at than in previous on-road studies examining looking behavior (recall that Lee et al. used video recordings of drivers' faces that, at best, examined gross eye movements).(9)

Two studies are reported. Each study was conducted in a different city. The two studies employed the same methodology. The studies' primary research questions were:

  1. Do CEVMS attract drivers' attention away from the forward roadway and other driving relevant stimuli?
  2. Do glances to CEVMS occur that would suggest a decrease in safety?
  3. Do drivers look at CEVMS more than at standard billboards?
Updated: 9/5/2014
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