Thursday, January 16, 2014

A View Too Long

The question is why the overkill?

Along highway exit ramps, lawmakers have now given out-of-state billboard companies permission to clear cut 340 feet of trees and vegetation in North Carolina’s cities, even if it conflicts with local, voter-approved ordinances.

The 7 seconds of blight (at exit ramp speeds) created by the 340’ of clear cutting is ostensibly so drivers have the potential to take their eyes off the road for the 2.5 seconds studies show it takes to decipher a message on a roadside billboard.

The overkill is nearly three times what is needed for the billboards to have their view.

By comparison, research also shows that this same span of inattention to the roadway in order for a billboard message to be deciphered more than doubles the chance of an accident.

It is the same span of inattention found just prior to 80% of crashes and 65% of near-crashes.

What does a typical billboard pay for this desecration in fees and property taxes in order to reach the fewer than 1-in-10 Americans, 1-in-25 marketing professionals and 1-in 33 small businesses who still use billboards?

On average each year, what they pay in fees and taxes on each billboard equates only to the cost of a good steak dinner for two with fixings (wine not included) compared to raking in $24,000, on average, from rentals.

North Carolina doesn’t permit billboards to be assessed on rental revenue.

There is no taxpayer compensation required, as a rule, for the public trees that are clear cut, unless it is an exceptionally large specimen.  Even then the cost is about 1% of the value economists place on a tree in terms of just ecosystem services, soil retention and pollution removal.

Even then, lawmakers permit the billboard companies to sell the wood to offset the cost of removal. 

The rate of crashes on these exit ramps varies by type, but on average there are about 1,200 crashes per year per ramp.  Close to half are rear-end collisions, a type of crash with a nearly 1-in-3 chance of resulting in injury.  This costs society $8.5 million in medical treatment alone.

Visual inattention is a contributing factor for 93% of rear-end crashes, and the rate is four times higher for novice drivers.

Even when paying rapt attention, studies have now shown that drivers cannot detect slowing by the car ahead unless the difference is 8 to 10 miles an hour, a finding crucial to safety on exit ramps.

So turning away for more than a split second is hazardous, and exit ramps are no place to be purposely creating distractions, especially just to triple the time needed to gawk at a billboard.

Overall, more than half of car crash fatalities are caused by drivers who are distracted, overcorrecting, driving erratically, or failing to stay between the lines, nearly as much as alcohol and speeding combined.

No matter that the most recent North Carolina billboard legislation is in conflict not only with other state law but also the federal Highway Beautification Act, both of which guarantee localities a say when it comes to signs such as these.

Even without the opposition of 8-in-10 North Carolinians, all of this would seem enough to motivate sensible billboard companies to revisit this with lawmakers in pursuit of a more moderate solution.

Complicating such a move is that the average North Carolina lawmaker is my age, 65, and generationally a “baby boomer,” nearly double the median age for North Carolinians.

Studies show that different from younger generations, boomers still rely on advertising and sales pitches.  Millennials, for example, do consumer research via a smartphone while boomers are twice as likely to research via newspapers and magazines.

Lack of concern for roadsides in the legislature may reflect a widening generation gap.

Use of roadside billboards has declined to around 3% among small business advertisers.  At the local level, even when mid-sized businesses are included, that proportion climbs to just more than 1-in-10.

More telling, according to the Local Commerce Monitor, 6-in-10 of the small and medium sized businesses that still use billboards do not give them positive ratings for return-on-investment.

In fact, the study reports that overall these businesses are shedding advertising channels and billboards are next in line to go.

I wonder if North Carolina would make better decisions about billboards if state officials deployed return-on-investment metrics?

One measure should be against the state’s new slogan for visitor-centric economic and cultural development:

“Beauty Amplified!”

No comments: