News analysis: Any billboard is a distraction
The proposed regulation change to allow digital billboards along I-95 in Milford prompted me to have a case of distracted driving while looking at billboards on other towns along I-95 and I-395. As best I could do while driving, I counted traditional and digital billboards from the New York line up to the merge with I-395, and then on I-395 up to the Massachusetts border.
In reading these numbers, note that I counted billboards by location, which might involve a single-sided or double-sided billboard, and not the total number of faces, as that was simply too difficult to do while driving. When I counted digital billboards, I counted the number of faces. In some places, a billboard location might have a printed face on one side and a digital face on the other. Also note that these counts are probably not exact because I may have missed some billboards in locations with many of them.
What I saw varied tremendously from town to town with the greatest numbers in urban areas. I encountered some surprises in certain towns. While Greenwich is a large town with commercial buildings along I-95, there are zero billboards along I-95. The smaller towns of Darien and Westport mirrored the results in Greenwich: zero billboards.
In Stamford, where one would expect to find numerous billboards along a very commercial stretch of road, I counted only five locations and none were digital. In Norwalk, another commercially-zoned city like Stamford, I counted only seven locations and none of the existing billboards are digital. However, there is a new digital sign on the SoNo Collection mall, which is right next to the highway. I also noted that all the Norwalk billboards along I-95 are west of the Norwalk River, which is near Exit 16 at East Avenue. I saw only five billboard locations along I-95 in Fairfield and none were digital.
When I arrived in Bridgeport, it was literally an assault on the senses. I counted more than 30 billboards as I drove, the exact number of which I am not sure about because I was driving and there were so many. Of those, about 10 faces were digital, including a new double-faced one that was installed after the Arena at Harbor Yard arena built.
The situation eases a bit in Stratford, which has 16 billboards, only two of which are digital. As former Milford Alderman Bryan Anderson commented at a public hearing before the Planning and Zoning Board, one Stratford billboards shines on a new apartment building on Ferry Boulevard that borders I-95.
In Milford, as was discussed at the hearings, there are seven sets of billboards, none of which are digital. The vote to pass a regulation change to allow digital billboards failed at the Dec. 17 P&Z meeting by a 5-4 vote, one vote shy of the six votes needed to pass a regulation change.
In West Haven, there are 13 billboard locations, including one digital billboard. Orange has one printed billboard location and no digital ones. New Haven has 12 billboard locations at which about 10 faces are digital.
In East Haven, there are four locations with one digital face. Branford has seven billboard locations and no digital faces. Guilford has one billboard along the highway, plus another two set back into the woods, which are partially visible from the highway. Madison, Clinton, Westbrook, Old Saybrook, and Old Lyme all have zero billboards and are mostly wooded along the highway. There are three printed billboard locations in East Lyme. There are no billboards along the entire 56-mile long stretch of I-395 in Connecticut, which is mostly wooded.
The question for Milford is where does it see itself as a town? Does it want to emulate the posh, image-conscious lower Fairfield County towns of Greenwich, Darien, and Westport, or does it want to follow the lead of the cash-starved urban areas of Bridgeport, West Haven, and New Haven?
My personal preference would be for the entire state to follow the lead of states like Alaska, Hawaii, Maine and Vermont, which have absolutely no billboards since they detract from the natural beauty of the outdoors. The major disadvantage of a ban is that it would eliminate the jobs for people who work in this industry. There would also be a modest loss of tax revenue to municipalities.
It would be interesting to see studies with regard to how much would digital billboards benefit local businesses in a place like Milford. This was one of the reasons given at the public hearings in favor of digital billboards. I think digital billboards would be most beneficial for restaurants and attractions, prompting someone driving along the road to stop for a meal in the city, or to visit an event like the Milford Oyster Festival.
The billboard proponents put forth the idea that there could be beneficial public service announcements or AMBER Alerts. AMBER Alerts are already projected on the state traffic signs, but they are limited in detail because of the design of those signs, and cannot display a photo of a missing child. This limitation could be remedied if the state traffic warning signs used a digital billboard format that could better present such information.
Public service messages aside, billboard operators proposed the regulation because they see it as a more profitable venture than static billboards. There is high likelihood that a proposal for electronic billboards along I-95 could return to the Milford P&Z in a different form. The board has three new members this month, and two of those who are not returning voted against allowing digital billboards.
If the board at some point decides to adopt electronic billboards regulations, I suggest that it remove all of the Corridor Design Development Districts from the regulation. This would eliminate the possibility of having a billboard by the Gloria Commons condominium along I-95 by Exit 36.
With regard to the debate over safety, I see no reason to disagree with the findings of the safety studies based on my own personal observations. I think that most people will glance at a billboard, traditional or digital, for a fraction of a second and can certainly continue to observe what is taking place around them on the road. I also think that if conditions are busy and vehicles are close together, then drivers will ignore the billboards and keep their eyes on the road.
One thing that may be hard to change is the human factor. Anyone driving along the highway probably has had the amusing experience of seeing a digital billboard in the distance that interests them and then before they get close enough to read it clearly, it changes to something else with them wanting it to change back.