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Keystone State Asking Feds to Allow Advertisements on Highway Signs

Fri July 16, 2010 - Northeast Edition
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HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) Electronic signs along state highways that warn drivers of accidents, traffic jams and construction could be pitching them products if state officials get their way.

Pennsylvania has joined California and Florida in asking the federal government to allow the sale of advertising on electronic highway signs to generate money to fix roads and bridges.

The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation said the advertising could generate $150 million annually for each state. But traffic safety advocates argue that the ads could distract drivers and pose a road hazard.

The states are asking the Federal Highway Administration to waive several regulations that bar advertisements on overhead and roadside changeable signs. States would contract with private companies to upgrade and maintain the electronic signs, The Patriot-News of Harrisburg said, citing an application it had obtained.

If the waivers are granted by the federal government state lawmakers would need to sign off on the plan because Pennsylvania law also bars commercial advertising on traffic signs. The state could begin a pilot program to test the idea if the Legislature approves that.

The Pennsylvania Turnpike allows ads on tollbooth windows and ticket machines that generated about $519,000 last year, said Carl DeFebo, a spokesman of the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission. Advertising has been permitted on tollbooths along the 545 mi. of highway since 2000.

Safety organizations said the electronic signs are risky.

“They can be distracting,” said Fairley Mahlum, a spokeswoman of the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. “Most of the current concern centers around some of the new technology that is being used for signs, especially the ones that are big that use very bright LED lights that often change. Something like that could be very distracting.”

Mary Tracy, president of the nonprofit Scenic America, which aims to preserve roadside scenery, said electronic message boards should be identified as a distraction like cell phones.

“There is a growing and sound body of scientific evidence that has confirmed the intuitive notion that a digital billboard, essentially a giant TV on a stick … poses an unnecessary safety risk to drivers,” Tracy wrote last fall.

The states’ application, however, cited a 2007 Virginia Tech Transportation Institute study saying the typical glance at a digital sign is about one second and the effects on driver performance are similar to glances at signs on the premises of businesses.

To ensure that the signs are safe, a pilot program using 50 electronic signs would be established before the project became statewide, PennDOT spokesman Rich Kirkpatrick said.

“Safety … is the paramount issue that must be addressed before this initiative can move forward,” Kirkpatrick said.

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