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Friday, November 30, 2007
COMMENTARY: LED billboards will ruin our roadways
Picture this: You're going 65 mph in traffic when suddenly, ahead on the right, there's a huge billboard lighting up the night sky. What's this? The image is changing ... It's a new message ... for a different product ... What's it saying now ... ?
How could you not be?
Yet right now, at a time when driving while talking on a cell phone is a major threat to public safety, the Texas Transportation Commission has proposed a rule that could allow a far greater distraction: giant, brightly lit, shifting-image light-emitting diode billboards along Texas highways.
Each LED sign would be like a little bit of Las Vegas plunked down in the middle of our tranquil Texas landscape.
What would Lady Bird Johnson think? I think she'd say, "What happens in Vegas should stay in Vegas."
But the signs mess with Texas. Distraction — grabbing our attention — is their goal. Paul Meyer, president and chief operating officer of Clear Channel Outdoor, has been quoted as saying, "You can't avoid it. There's no mute button. There's no on-off switch."
I expect this from Clear Channel; that's its business. But I don't expect it from a Texas regulatory agency.
I expect more. I expect our highway commissioners to care about the beauty of our state, the costs of our highways and the safety of our roads. I expect them not to add to the taxpayer costs of highway construction by allowing more expensive billboards that need to be moved or condemned when a highway needs to be widened. I expect them to pay attention to studies that show that distracting a driver for as little as two seconds is enough to create a serious safety hazard. I expect them to listen to what we want our highway views to look like, and to protect them. An April 2007 survey revealed that 86 percent oppose more billboards of any kind, let alone LED signs that scream out for attention day and night.
Until TxDOT published the proposed new rules, it said LED signs were "intermittent" signs, specifically prohibited under the Highway Beautification Act. But the sign industry said, "Just because our messages change at regular intervals doesn't mean they are intermittent." And here's the kicker: Our highway commissioners suddenly agreed and created a new definition for "intermittent." As long as the sign changes its message no more than every eight seconds, it's not "intermittent."
But even if there were any basis to say seven seconds or less is not OK but eight or more is just fine, LED signs are not appropriate outside of Vegas or Times Square.
Earlier this year, the Marietta, Ga., City Council said no to Clear Channel's LED signs because it didn't want taxpayers to have to buy the very expensive signs when they widen their highway. Now that's good public policy.
If we don't rise up and tell the highway commissioners, Gov. Rick Perry and other elected officials that enough is enough, the ban on LED signs could be lifted as early as next month.
Lady Bird can't stand up for our Texas roadsides and vistas anymore, but we can. She was right: The best thing about Texas highways is the sheer beauty of our natural surroundings. These signs just aren't natural.
(Huber lives in western Travis County.)
The Texas Transportation Commission is accepting written comments on LED billboards through Dec. 6.
Send them to John Campbell, Director, Right-of-Way Division, Texas Department of Transportation, 125 E. 11th St., Austin, TX 78701-2483.
A public hearing will be held there at 9 a.m. Wednesday.
Or use this link to a form and submit your comments by email:
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