The 2015 landmark decision by the United States Supreme Court in Reed v. Town of Gilbert incorporates a substantial amount of language useful to sign-industry advocates. While this case involved temporary signage and First Amendment rights, a broader reading of the ruling suggests that regulation of all types of signage ought to be based on something more substantial than local or state officials’ knee-jerk impressions. Thus, as stated in the high court’s majority opinion, the Town of Gilbert failed to establish that “the restriction furthers a compelling interest and is narrowly tailored to achieve that interest.”
This opinion strongly supports an evidence-based approach to regulating all types of signage, including outdoor, digital signs. Conversely, when regulations are based on suppositions rather than empirical evidence, the legitimate rights of sign users may sometimes be ignored. Some common and persistent myths about digital signage have contributed greatly to these circumstances.
The four myths
The first common myth regarding outdoor, digital signs is some administrators’ mischaracterization of them as “TV on a stick.” This stereotype creates the misperception that these signs commonly display video feeds and, on that basis, allegedly pose significant issues impacting public safety or community aesthetics.
Roger Brown has led the Signage Legislation department at Daktronics (Brookings, SD) for nine years. He works closely with sign companies and government bodies to improve the regulatory environment for digital displays, and he’s worked with hundreds of localities to assist in drafting appropriate regulations and to ease permitting of LED signs.
Speaking of the television analogy, Brown said, “Digital billboards are almost universally limited across the country to displaying static images. No movement is perceived by viewers except for an instantaneous transition between these images. While on-premise EMCs could theoretically mimic television-style images, jurisdictions limit such capabilities through restrictions on sign size and movement.”
In this regard, sign professionals are well aware that the vast majority of sign codes throughout the U.S. do not allow flashing or animated electric signs of any type. It’s misleading for local officials to dub these signs “dynamic” because, in the viewer’s perception, they do not differ essentially from static billboards.
A second common myth holds that outdoor, digital signs are excessively bright or that their brightness is unregulated. Some of these concerns may derive from earlier years when digital signs were introduced and brightness was not carefully controlled. “LED signs need to brighten or dim based on ambient light levels,” Brown said. “For example, a sign may operate at or near 100% of its brightness capability to compete with bright sunlight during the day. At night, however, a sign may dim down to only 3% or less of its maximum brightness to make sure the brightness level appears the same to the human eye.”
Today, most outdoor, digital signs are equipped with brightness controls that automatically adjust to ambient light levels.
Ken Peskin, director of industry programs for the International Sign Association (ISA), is directly involved in advocacy efforts on behalf of the on-premise sign industry. Regarding brightness, Peskin said, “More recently, we’ve been reasonably successful in addressing concerns about excessive brightness, chiefly because ISA and the Outdoor Advertising Assn. of America have published scientific studies that provide brightness recommendations for digital signage. We make this information available to cities and towns developing regulations in the U.S. In Canada, EMC brightness is considered a settled issue based on utilization of these guidelines.”
A third myth is the perception that, as a result of either motion or brightness, digital signs present significant distractions to motorists, thereby posing public safety hazards. With reference to available research on the subject, however, Brown said, “This technology has been studied for many years, and no causal link has ever been found between accidents and EMCs or digital billboards. After many years and reviewing different types of signs located across varying regions of the country, it’s quite clear that accidents are not increasing due to these signs.” Among other studies, these comments are supported by the U.S. Dept. of Transportation Federal Highway Administration’s extensive study, “Driver Visual Behavior in the Presence of Commercial Electronic Variable Message Signs.”
Our fourth myth holds the assumption that, if a city or town opens the door to permitting even a small number of digital signs, then somehow their community might evolve into a version of the Las Vegas Strip. This reflects the community-aesthetics argument which Peskin identified as the most common rationale he encounters in jurisdictions seeking to ban or severely restrict this type of signage. “People supporting greater regulation tend to cite only the worst examples of digital signs,” he said, noting that poor content programming only feeds negative perceptions.
Winning hearts and minds
In this regard, Las Vegas and certain other major US entertainment districts represent unusual circumstances in which spectacular signage constitutes a central element of the community identity. Conversely, digital signage permitted in ordinary commercial districts and in accordance with reasonable regulations generally corresponds to the extent of economic activity within a specific city or town.
As it’s currently used throughout the U.S. and elsewhere, digital signage represents a technological advancement that provides greater messaging options for advertisers. And, in the vast majority of current applications, this technology does not present additional regulatory concerns beyond those associated with ordinary, static signage.
As reported by the Northwest Herald (Crystal Lake, IL), when the Planning and Development Committee in McHenry County, IL considered a county-wide ban of digital signs in 2013, its chairman, Joe Gottemoller, stated, “Imposing a ban whenever technology changes an industry does not make for good government.”
Remarks such as this reflect a deeper understanding of digital signage, which industry advocates continue to cultivate among regulatory officials.
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