Friday 12 December 2014

Driven To Distraction

This has been simmering with me for some time - the thorny subject of advertising on or next to the public highway.

Two things prompted me to post about this subject (putting off technical posts again!). First was an enquiry at work from our planning enforcement team about an illuminated digital advert billboard. I cannot give any more details because of possible action. Second,  I received a news email from Transport Network regarding a deal between Edinburgh City Council and JC Decaux on maintaining the city's bus shelters and other street furniture.  According Transport Network, JC Decaux get advertising rights in return for a 10 year deal.

It is also reported that a "30 metre digital moving image advertising screen over all four lanes of the main road from Edinburgh to the city’s airport" is planned which has got the Institute for Advanced Motorists concerned about driver distraction.

I am happy to be shown wrong, but I believe the location in mind is the A8 Glasgow Road, near the airport. There is a planning application available for viewing and the proposal is to have huge digital advert displays on the roundabout junction with the A270, under which the A8 passes. In other words, these advert displays are entirely aimed at the occupants of vehicles on the A8, many of whom are driving.

Consultant, WYG, have provided a technical note on highway safety in support of the application (plus an appendix). The note suggests that on the approaches to the site, drivers are subject to a wide variety of visual stimuli (buildings, adverts on buildings etc) and at the place where the proposed adverts would be, drivers will have already passed lane destination gantries and will have moved to their correct lanes before the adverts are seen. They also do some casualty collision data analysis and conclude that there is no current safety issue at the location.

WYG then considers the safety impacts of the adverts and concludes there are none because there are only two manoeuvres where drivers would see them (passing under the roundabout and leaving the A8 off slips, where they would be slowing down and the adverts would be out of direct line of sight). They consider a roundabout in Manchester with an identical casualty rate before and after a big advert was installed. The Manchester site is an entirely different junction and WYG do not explain why they have picked that particular site. Of course, this is up to the good people of Edinburgh and their elected officials, plus WYG are doing the job they have been paid to do.

Highway authorities have a general duty under S39 of the Road Traffic Act 1988 to promote road safety. It is a general duty because it does not prescribe. An action against an authority for failure under S39 is unlikely to succeed and I am not aware of any successful cases (m'learned colleagues might have some interesting examples). However, if a local authority (also being a highway authority) actively promotes something which is designed to attract the attention of drivers (by entering into contracts, even with civil indemnities), can that be right?

Of course, advert panels of all sizes are everywhere and perhaps I am over-reacting. Many towns and cities have deals with advertising companies in return for bus shelters and other kit, but in this climate of savage cuts, I do wonder how objective people will be in approving these huge advert displays?

There is very little research on the impact of roadside advertising and coupled with the fact that driver distraction is under reported, it is very hard to determine exactly what linkages there are to collisions. If a driver is involved in a reportable crash, would they really want to admit to the police that they were distracted? What does seem to be an issue is the emergence of animated video adverts. The Transport Research Laboratory did some (simulator) work for Transport for London in 2007 and the conclusions were that drivers:

  • Spent longer looking at video adverts
  • Glanced at video adverts more frequently
  • Tended to show greater variation in lateral lane position with video adverts
  • Braked harder on approach to video adverts
  • Drove more slowly past video adverts

This report was on TfL's old website, but annoyingly I cannot find it now, although I am sure I downloaded it - if I find it, I will update this post with a download link. What is interesting is TfL is now actively promoting advertising all over its network, including roadside hoardings. In TfL's policy, there is a single reference to safety, although it is pretty vague;

In the case of digital media, the advertisement must not pose a health and safety risk as a result of flickering or other visual imagery. 

TfL is worried about people being distracted on its network, but only if they are 11 - 14 years old and not driving.

Adverts on the highway require planning consent. In the case of TfL, the planning authority will be the London Borough (and City) and even if a proposal is agreeable to TfL, the local authority can reject it on material planning grounds, including impact on highway safety. However as can be seen from the Edinburgh case and in countless cases up and down the country, the outdoor advertising industry has the resources to employ consultants to prove their scheme is safe either at planning application stage or at appeal.

Risk is subjective, but human physiology less so. The faster someone is moving, the less they are able to take in and at a critical moment, an advert board (especially large, brightly lit and animated ones) may be the thing the eye hones in on rather than other more important things such as a stationary line of vehicles ahead, people crossing the road, cyclists, traffic signals and so on. 

Advertising is big businesses and the players are falling over each other to get our attention so we become aware of their clients' brands. Outdoor digital advertising is worth £214 m in revenue in the UK. Some of this will be in private areas, not seen by drivers, but clearly, there are vested interests in selling roadside space. You only need look at the trade body's website to see the images of massive adverts by the side of big roads being heavily featured.

Let is be very clear. Advertising is designed to attract people's attention; the more people the better. Big adverts placed by the side of busy roads are attractive to those advertising because many people pass them and see them. A significant number of those people will be in control of vehicles and other people around them are relying on those drivers to pay attention. Not sure I need to add anything else, other than the damn things ruin the visual amenity of our streets (although granted, there might not be much amenity on an urban motorway!)


  1. Wow even IAM think it is a bad idea.

  2. "They also do some casualty collision data analysis and conclude that there is no current safety issue at the location." How many times have I heard that!. It doesn't mean that location is safe, particularly for pedestrians and cyclists who may simply have been scared away.

    Still, probably no worse than texting, looking at videos on lap tops, phone calls (hands free or not), staring at GPS device, listening to radio, talking to everybody in the car, generally drifiting off etc., etc

    Robert Davis, RDRF

    1. Classic "he who pays the piper". The consultant won't be making much, so why get involved? The clear point is big adverts are designed to distract. If a driver ever admitted it, I would hope the designers are called to give evidence in court!

  3. You say " S39 of the Road Traffic Act 1988 does not prescribe."
    It does not prescribe to be proactive but it does prescribe to be reactive; i.e. after collisions the relevant Transport Authority MUST take action to prevent future collisions.
    This prescription is however ignored.
    Vision Zero London will soon write about this contempt of the law by all Local Authorities.

  4. I really do understand your point, but the general duty talks about studies into accidents (I prefer collisions or injuries), but it does not prescribe in reaction to individual collisions.

    General duties do not prescribe because of the liability and financial implications which judges rarely interfere with. I am not saying this is right or wrong, just the way the law is arranged for any law with a general duty.

    It would be interesting for a legal expert's opinion.

  5. The Dutch actually have a couple solutions to this problem. First, the classification of Sustainable Safety means that access roads are, as much as possible, the only roads where you access things, be it homes or businesses or other destinations. Putting ads more along the access roads relating to business works better because the slower speeds means less danger, less volume, less complex road layouts and with less congestion pressures. And it also means that you get to see the ad for longer, a boost to business.

    And the second solution is pedestrianized shopping centres. You arrive by car in an underground parkade, or by bike or foot more commonly, or by bus, on the surface, then you get out and start walking around. You could only really walk into a lamppost at worst. Getting hit in a car is not something that is likely. And 3500 kg vans at most moving at walking pace isn't going to hurt you if it hits you, and even those can be controlled so that they deliver during off peak pedestrian times. It helps businesses too by the fact that people can easily chose to enter a store on a whim, and that their journey purpose is more likely to have free time to shop, and ads are see for longer periods of time.