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CEVMS and Driver Visual Behavior Study - Peer reviewed report

General Discussion

This study was conducted to investigate the effect of CEVMS on driver visual behavior in a roadway driving environment. An instrumented vehicle with an eye tracking system was used. Roads containing CEVMS, standard billboards, and control areas with no off-premise advertising were selected. The CEVMS and standard billboards were measured with respect to luminance, location, size, and other relevant variables to characterize these visual stimuli. Unlike previous studies on digital billboards, the present study examined CEVMS as deployed in two United States cities and did not contain dynamic video or other dynamic elements. The CEVMS changed content approximately every 8 to 10 seconds, consistent within the limits provided by FHWA guidance.(2) In addition, the eye tracking system used had nearly a 2-degree level of resolution that provided significantly more accuracy in determining what objects the drivers were gazing or fixating on as compared to some previous field studies examining CEVMS.


Do CEVMS attract drivers' attention away from the forward roadway and other driving relevant stimuli?

Overall, the probability of looking at the road ahead was high across all conditions. In Reading, the CEVMS condition had a lower proportion of gazes to the road ahead than the standard billboard condition on the freeways. Both of the off-premise advertising conditions had a lower proportion of gazes to the road ahead than the control condition on the freeway. The lower proportion of gazes to the road ahead can be attributed to the overall distribution of gazes away from the road ahead and not just to the CEVMS. On the other hand, for the arterials the CEVMS and standard billboard conditions did not differ from each other, but both had a lower proportion of gazes to the road ahead compared to the control. In Richmond there were no differences among the three advertising conditions on the arterials. However, for the freeways the CEVMS and standard billboard conditions did not differ from each other but had a lower proportion of gazes to the road ahead than the control.

The control conditions differed across studies. In Reading, the control condition on arterials showed 92 percent for gazing at the road ahead while on the freeway it was 86 percent. On the other hand, in Richmond the control condition for arterials was 78 percent and for the freeway it was 92 percent. The control conditions on the freeway differed across the two studies. In Reading there were businesses off to the side of the road; whereas in Richmond the sides of the road were mostly covered with trees. The control conditions on the arterials also differed across cities in that both contained businesses and on-premise advertising; however, in Reading arterials had four lanes and in Richmond arterials had six lanes. The reason for these differences across cities was that these control conditions were selected to match the other conditions (CEVMS and standard billboards) that the drivers would experience in the two respective cities. Also, the selection of DCZs was obviously constrained by what was available on the ground in these cities.

The results for the off-premise advertising conditions are consistent with Lee et al., who observed that 76 percent of drivers' time was spent looking at the road ahead in the CEVMS scenario and 75 percent in the standard billboard scenario.(9) However, it should be kept in mind that drivers did gaze away from the road ahead even when no off-premise advertising was present and that the presence of clutter or salient visual stimuli did not necessarily control where drivers gazed.

Do glances to CEVMS occur that would suggest a decrease in safety?

In DCZs containing CEVMS, about 2.5 percent of the fixations were to CEVMS (about 2.4 percent to standard billboards). The results for fixations are similar to those reported in other field data collection efforts that included advertising signs.(12,11,9,13) Fixations greater than 2,000 ms were not observed for CEVMS or standards billboards.

However, an analysis of dwell times to CEVMS showed a mean dwell time of 994 ms (maximum of 1,467 ms) for Reading and a mean of 1,039 ms (maximum of 2,270 ms) for Richmond. Statistical comparisons of average dwell times between CEVMS and standard billboards were not significant in Reading; however, in Richmond the average dwell times to CEVMS were significantly longer than to standard billboards, though below 2,000 ms. There was one dwell time greater than 2,000 ms to a CEVMS across the two cities. On the other hand, for standard billboards there were three long dwell times in Reading; there were no long dwell times to these billboards in Richmond. Review of the video data for these four long dwell times showed that the signs were not far from the forward view when participants were fixating. Therefore, the drivers still had access to information about what was in front of them through peripheral vision.

As the analyses of gazes to the road ahead showed, drivers distributed their gazes away from the road ahead even when there were no off-premise billboards present. Also, drivers gazed and fixated on off-premise signs even though they were generally irrelevant to the driving task. However, the results did not provide evidence indicating that CEVMS were associated with long glances away from the road that may reflect an increase in risk. When long dwell times occurred to CEVMS or standard billboards, the road ahead was still in the driver's field of view.

Do drivers look at CEVMS more than at standard billboards?

The drivers were generally more likely to gaze at CEVMS than at standard billboards. However, there was some variability between the two locations and between type of roadway (arterial or freeway).  In Reading, the participants looked more often at CEVMS when on arterials, whereas they looked more often at standard billboards when on freeways. In Richmond, the drivers looked at CEVMS more than standard billboards no matter the type of road they were on, but as in Reading the preference for gazing at CEVMS was greater on arterials (68 percent on arterials and 55 percent on freeways). The slower speed on arterials and sign placement may present drivers with more opportunities to gaze at the signs.

In Richmond, the results showed that drivers gazed more at CEVMS than standard billboards at night; however, for Reading no effect for time of day was found. CEVMS do have higher luminance and contrast than standard billboards at night. The results showed mean luminance of about 56 cd/m2 in the two cities where testing was conducted. These signs would appear clearly visible but not overly bright.


The results of these studies are consistent with a wealth of research that has been conducted on vision in natural environments.(26,22,21) In the driving environment, gaze allocation is principally controlled by the requirements of the task. Consistent results were shown for the proportion of gazes to the road ahead for off-premise advertising conditions across the two cities. Average fixations were similar to CEVMS and standard billboards with no long single fixations evident for either condition. Across the two cities, four long dwell times were observed: one to a CEVMS on a freeway in the day, two to the same standard billboard on a freeway (once at night and once in the daytime), and one to a standard billboard on an arterial at night. Examination of the scene video and eye tracking data indicated that these long dwell times occurred when the billboards were close to the forward field of view where peripheral vision could still be used to gather visual information on the forward roadway.

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 (i.e., 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.

Limitations of the Research

In this study the participants drove a research vehicle with two experimenters on board. The participants were provided with audio turn-by-turn directions and consequently did not have a taxing navigation task to perform. The participants were instructed to drive as they normally would. However, the presence of researchers in the vehicle and the nature of the driving task do limit the degree to which one may generalize the current results to other driving situations. This is a general limitation of instrumented vehicle research.

The two cities employed in the study appeared to follow common practices with respect to the content change frequency (every 8 to 10 seconds) and the brightness of the CEVMS. The current results would not generalize to situations where these guidelines are not being followed.

Participant recruiting was done through libraries, community centers and at a university. This recruiting procedure resulted in a participant demographic distribution that may not be representative of the general driving population.

The study employed a head-free eye tracking device to increase the realism of the driving situation (no head-mounted gear). However, the eye tracker had a sampling rate of 60 Hz, which made determining saccades problematic. The eye tracker and analyses software employed in this effort represents a significant improvement in technology over previous similar efforts in this area.

The study focused on objects that were 1,000 feet or less from the drivers. This was dictated by the accuracy of the eye tracking system and the ability to resolve objects for data reduction. In addition, the geometry of the roadway precluded the consideration of objects at great distances.

The study was performed on actual roadways, and this limited the control of the visual scenes except via the route selection process. In an ideal case, one would have had roadways with CEVMS, standard billboards, and no off-premise advertising and in which the context surrounding digital and standard billboards did not differ. This was not the case in this study, although such an exclusive environment would be inconsistent with the experience of most drivers. This presents issues with the interpretation of the specific contributions made by billboards and the environment to the driver's behavior.

Sign content was not investigated (or controlled) in the present study, but may be an important factor to consider in future studies that investigate the distraction potential of advertising signs. Investigations about the effect of content could potentially be performed in driving simulators where this variable could be systematically controlled and manipulated.

Updated: 9/5/2014
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