Safety experts fear city's new digital billboards may cause car crashes

Brightly flashing digital billboards are designed to catch the eye - but for drivers, they could be dangerous,

ABU DHABI // Hi-tech distraction or sign of the times? The city's digital billboards are eye-catching indeed, but maybe too eye-catching, say local safety experts. Their flashing colours and rapidly changing images are a fast-growing segment of the outdoor advertising market, but safety experts say they pull motorists' eyes away from signals and pedestrians and could lead to more accidents.

Norm Labbe, a defensive driving instructor in the capital, said: "Our senses are being bombarded by navigation equipment, bright lights, music, cell phones, and now these billboards, where it's almost like a strobe-light effect." More than a dozen US cities have banned the popular electronic advertising billboards, pointing out that unlike mobile phones, drivers cannot switch them off. Several cities in Canada are also considering moratoriums on the technology. Here, however, their numbers are increasing.

Abu Dhabi's digital signage is perched atop buildings overlooking major junctions such as Muroor Road at Electra Street and Airport Road at Al Falah Street. The newest mammoth LED screen, measuring 20 metres by eight metres, is being erected on the corner of Muroor Road at Hamdan Street. Future Vision, the ad firm that owns those displays, rotates six images every 10 seconds, allowing as many clients to promote themselves using the same billboard.

The computer-operated billboards have been a boon for advertisers, said Rajiv Khurana, the Middle East vice-president of the advertising firm Dentsu Marcom. He predicts the number of displays will more than double in the Emirates within five years. The problem, Mr Labbe said, is that such billboards are designed to be distracting in order to be effective. Changing colours or designs encourages drivers to keep looking for the next digital image to appear.

"It takes approximately one and a half to two seconds for you to react properly and apply your brakes and come to a stop," he said. "A lot can happen in two seconds." Just as there is a growing body of research on the dangers of texting while driving, he called for local researchers to study how much of a distraction the signs pose to people at the wheel.

Results from US studies on the issue have been mixed. The Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, which is financed by the billboard industry, found that the displays posed no hazard in 2007. However, the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials reported last year that they "attract drivers' eyes away from the road for extended, demonstrably unsafe periods of time". "That's my concern, that this is one more added element to the mix," Mr Labbe said.

Abu Dhabi's preprogrammed displays draw more attention at night, and are even more hazardous at what Dr Peter Barss, an injury prevention specialist who works with UAE University, described as "complex driving environments" such as major intersections. Dr Barss said the onus should be on companies profiting from the billboards to prove that they do not imperil drivers. "The traffic environment here is extremely high speed at a lot of places, so it seems to me the potential [for accidents] would be high," he said.

"When you're trying to discern whether you go right or left, and suddenly there's a huge flashing sign out there pulling your eyes away, well how many seconds can you afford to take your eyes off the road and not hit somebody?" Although Future Vision's three signs have video capabilities, Robert Awad, the company's media executive, said Abu Dhabi Municipality was wary of allowing moving pictures to play above evening traffic. "They gave us the approval to do this latest technology on one condition, to make the billboards static, not dynamic," Mr Awad said. "This is to avoid accidents."

Even so, it is hard to miss Synaxis Media's dynamic 224-square-metre Opulence, the largest outdoor LED sign in the Middle East, broadcasting "TV-quality ads" just above the Marks & Spencer on Airport Road. The Opulence can broadcast video because it is not positioned at a major intersection, said Fahad al Absi, the founder of Synaxis. "You can deliver six messages for the same campaign using the same space. You save six times the money," he said of the display, which was switched on two years ago.

Adverts cost Dh300,000 (US$81,673) a month and can be viewed 600 times a day. It costs Future Vision Dh90,000 a month to operate its screens. However, Mr al Absi supported strict regulation of electronic advertising placement. "Having it face intersections where they think the ad might be more effective is not such a good idea," he said. "Other LEDs might seem located in a prime location, but excuse me, it's right behind a traffic light. That can be confusing."

Samira Ahmed, an Emirati housewife, drives by the Opulence nearly every day and has had a few close calls in traffic while watching the screen. "The place is wrong because this is like a highway," said Mrs Ahmed, 46. "I almost had an accident one time because it was in the evening." Abu Dhabi Municipality did not respond to requests for comment, but officials with the advertising section said this month that three digital billboards have had their illumination levels decreased by 10 per cent after complaints.