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Was study of digital billboard safety botched?

A study of electronic billboards and traffic safety commissionedtThe Federal Highway Administration was supposed to have been completed in 2009, but it remains cloaked in mystery.

Billboard companies are moving aggressively to plant digital signs along U.S. highways and city streets. But debate persists on whether the eye-grabbing displays, which typically change messages every 6 to 8 seconds, pose a risk to traffic safety.

Combatants in the billboard wars -- including local and state officials under industry pressure to permit more of the lucrative signs -- are eager for a study by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA). They have hoped that the much-anticipated study, launched in 2007, would help clarify some key safety questions.

Yet the politically sensitive research, which was supposed to have been wrapped up in 2009, remains cloaked in mystery. All the FHWA has said, time after time, is that the study is under review.

It turns out that officials may be afraid to make an embarrassing admission.

According to records obtained by FairWarning under the Freedom of Information Act, expert reviewers have told the FHWA that the study appears to have been botched. The key findings vary so wildly from previous research that, as one reviewer put it, they “are not plausible.”

The agency has refused to answer questions. “We have no one available to be interviewed,” said spokesman Doug Hecox, adding that “internal discussions about the draft of the study are ongoing.” He would not say if FHWA plans to toss the research or try to salvage it.

The hundreds of pages of agency emails and other records reviewed by FairWarning, however, speak loudly about the political and financial stakes, as well as industry efforts to influence public opinion.

The unreleased draft, which drew withering critiques from two experts, gave the billboard industry what it wanted, the documents show. Those results indicated that drivers’ glances at billboards were exceedingly brief, suggesting that the displays aren’t a threat to traffic safety. 

Yet the billboard industry, led by the Outdoor Advertising Association of America, was deeply worried. The trade group campaigned to remove a study consultant that the industry accused of having an anti-billboard bias and brought out its own studies to frame public debate while the FHWA was still studying the issue.

Digital signs proliferate
Today, of more than 400,000 billboards in the U.S., estimates of digital displays range from slightly more than 2,000 to as many as 3,200. The industry has been adding hundreds of the more-profitable signs each year.

The FHWA study followed a controversial memo by the agency in September 2007 that appeared to green light the digital expansion. The memo stated that electronic displays were not prohibited under longstanding federal-state agreements that ban “intermittent’’ or ‘’flashing’’ signs. 

Anti-billboard groups, including Scenic America, denounced the memo as farcical, saying billboards that alternate content every few seconds are the exact definition of “intermittent’’ signs. Responding to attacks, the FHWA said that it was only clarifying existing policy. 

Stung by backlash from the memo, the FHWA launched its study. It relied on sophisticated instruments to monitor how long drivers on fixed routes in Reading, Pa., and Richmond, Va., glanced at digital billboards.

“Lots of interest from all sides,” said an email from senior agency official, referring to the research. “There is huge money involved here, so the interests are getting pretty strident.” 

A consulting firm, Science Applications International Corp., was hired to run the study. It brought on Jerry Wachtel, a Berkeley-based traffic safety expert, as an adviser. Science Applications declined comment 

The industry at the time was smarting from a report by Wachtel for Maryland transportation officials. They had asked him to review two industry-sponsored studies that the industry said confirmed the safety of digital billboards. Wachtel’s report said both studies were biased and misleading. 

Scenic America

A Clear Channel digital billboard advertises itself through electrical wires in Sarasota, Fla.

In a seemingly orchestrated campaign, several industry groups and members of Congress fired off letters attacking Wachtel and seeking his removal from the FHWA study. In its letter to Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, the outdoor advertising association blasted what it called Wachtel’s “high-profile activism.” 

Five House members from Pennsylvania — Democrats Jason Altmire, Christopher Carney and Tim Holden, and Republicans Charles W. Dent and Todd Russell Platts — signed a letter to FHWA Administrator Victor Mendez complaining of biased remarks by Wachtel at a hearing on billboards in their state. His involvement, they wrote, “may undermine the credibility of ongoing federal research.”

Billboard industry's political donations
All five lawmakers have received campaign support from billboard executives or political action committees since 2006, according to research by the Washington-based Center for Responsive Politics. The donations totaled at least $26,484. 

Altmire spokesman Richard Carbo said in an email that the congressmen “were concerned that the reports from the Federal Highway Administration were not unbiased.  That was the only purpose of the letter.”

In fact, Wachtel’s role was limited and his involvement basically had ended by the time of the protests.  However, FHWA officials wanted to avoid any appearance of caving in. “I think we have to be very careful in dealing with this issue,” one official said in an email.  “We do not want industry dictating whom we may or may not employ on our projects.” 

Responding to the outdoor advertising association, FHWA Associate Administrator Gloria Shepherd wrote: “We are well aware of the sensitive nature of this research. … I can assure you that we will be monitoring’’ the work “to be sure it is accomplished in an objective manner.” 

Wachtel, who has worked for billboard companies in the past, told FairWarning that “in their eyes, I have been both the world’s smartest guy and the world’s worst individual. I’m the smartest guy when I tell them what they want to hear.” 

In response to questions from FairWarning, the association said in an email that “OAAA and the outdoor industry support fair research. In fact, we’ve researched traffic safety for years. …The results have not indicated a correlation between digital billboards and traffic accidents.” 

Records show that FHWA officials rebuffed a Freedom of Information request from an industry lawyer to disclose the research locations, saying they would be kept secret “until the tests are completed to protect the integrity of the results.” 

But the industry found out, anyway. It launched its own studies in Reading and Richmond and blared the results. “Digital Billboards Not Linked to Accidents,” a press release said. 

Records show the FHWA study was submitted in September 2010, and circulated for internal review in the fall. “The final report is scheduled to be released to the public in December 2010,” an agency memo said. 

However, the review continued into 2011, when the two outside experts criticized it. Identified only as “REVIEWER 1” and “REVIEWER 2,” they concluded that the data appeared to be wrong. 

Distracted driving research has sought to find the amount of time when drivers looking away from the road raises the risk of a crash. In the scientific literature, glance times associated with a higher crash risk have been variously estimated at 2 seconds, 1.6 seconds or three-quarters of a second. 

Almost impossible
In the FHWA study, recorded glances were so brief that none came close to 2 seconds or even 1.6 seconds. Only about 1 percent were above three-quarters of a second.

In fact, the average was slightly below one-tenth of a second -- a number both expert reviewers considered almost impossible.

“The reported glances to billboards here are on the order of 10-times shorter than values reported elsewhere,” one reviewer wrote. “The pattern of results certainly raises questions over the quality and legitimacy of the underlying data.’’

The other said, “The data reported as average glance durations are not plausible.”

Two other experts contacted by FairWarning confirmed that the data was highly suspect.

Alison Smiley, president of Human Factors North, Inc., in Toronto, said the glance times were “extremely short’’ and substantially at odds with her own studies.

Paul A. Green, a research professor at the University of Michigan Transportation Institute, said glances so brief would mean the drivers “never really looked’’ at the billboards.

“It’s a flaw in the data,” Green said. “You wonder, if they made this mistake did they make other mistakes?” 

FairWarning is a nonprofit, online investigative news organization focused on public health and safety issues.