Researchers Find That Billboard Advertising Distracts Drivers

Michael Harper for — Your Universe Online

In recent years, it´s become increasingly clear just how dangerous distracted driving can be. Mobile carriers like AT&T have implemented programs to encourage drivers to stay off their phones while driving, while Verizon is working in Washington to drive legislation to get tough on these distracted drivers. Yet, while we can control the distractions inside of the vehicle, there´s still the issue of distractions outside of the car. Billboards line the roadways, pushing everything from hamburgers to surgical weight loss, alcoholic beverages to DUI lawyers.

According to a recent paper published in Accident Analysis and Prevention by University of Alberta researchers Michelle Chan and Anthony Singhai, these billboards can invoke different emotions in drivers. These emotions can then, in turn, distract us and affect the way we drive.

To test their theory, Chan and Singhai created an experiment using a driving simulator and a series of 20 billboards. Each of these billboards contained either negative words, (like cancer, killer, or stress) positive words, (such as beach, cheer or love) or neutral words, like engine, lawn or pencil.

Going into the experiment, Chan believed drivers would only react to billboards with emotionally charged words, such as those found in the negative or positive category. Once the experiment was completed, Chan and Singhai found all three types of billboards distracted drivers in some way, but those with emotionally charged words distracted drivers the most.

“Any kind of distraction is risky when you´re driving. But there would appear to be a larger risk when it comes to emotional stimuli,” said Chan in a statement.

This study has therefore concluded billboards that contain these kinds of emotionally charged words present a greater driving risk to those on the road than neutral billboards.

While participating in the driving simulation, participants were found to slow down when they saw billboards with either negative or positive words. Chan and Singhai believe this slowing down meant the drivers were having some sort of emotional response to these billboards. The negative billboards caused the drivers to swerve from side to side once they passed by. When these drivers passed by billboards with positive language, they were more likely to increase their speed. Chan and Singhai also included a few billboards with target words. When the participants passed by these billboards, they were instructed to press a button on the steering wheel. When drivers passed by billboards with these target words, they also increased their speed.

Chan says this test proves drivers have natural reactions to these billboards and, therefore, these ads distract drivers from the task at hand. She hopes this study will encourage governments to begin regulating what can be displayed on a billboard, as well as encourage marketers to carefully choose the kind of language they use for these advertisements. Chan used Australia´s billboard content laws as an example of the kinds of laws that could be adopted in other countries.