You can’t miss them. 

Whether they’re displaying a single ad (‘Find the Feeling’ by Monarch Airlines, ‘What’s Your Favorite Animal To Eat?’ by vegan charity group Viva!) or rotating through 6-8 flashy ones every minute, billboards are ubiquitous on the motorways of the United Kingdom and highways in the US. The media company Clear Channel states the UK alone has over 4000 billboards; that figure is dwarfed by the over 370,000 active billboards found across the US. People shouldn’t be surprised by the suggestion, then, of using billboards to promote this year’s Road Safety Week.

Heroes of the Road (Safety)

Road Safety Week is the UK’s biggest road safety event. Coordinated annually by the charity Brake, the seven-day event’s goal is to raise awareness for safer roads and encourage everyone to work together to promote a responsible driving culture.

This year’s event is being held from the 15th of November through the 21st. The theme is ‘Road Safety Heroes,’ which celebrates the many different groups involved in making the motorways and streets of the UK and other countries as safe as possible. Some of these groups include emergency services and their invaluable efforts; the work of the National Road Victim Service, which provides care for the emotional and practical needs of families devastated by motor-related accidents; and community services for mental health and disability. 

During the week, a different group will be highlighted each day: 

          Date                                  Hero theme

  • Monday 15 November      Road safety campaigners and charities
  • Tuesday 16 November      Children, families, youth, and schools
  • Wednesday 17 November Road safety professionals
  • Thursday 18 November     Emergency services and road victim services
  • Friday 19 November          Fleets, businesses, and employers
  • Saturday 20 November     Sustainability heroes
  • Sunday 21 November        World Day of Remembrance for Road Traffic Victims 2021

The Background of Billboards

Billboards (called hoardings in the UK) have been around as long as human civilization, which had carved laws and treaties into tall stones for everyone to read (or at least see). Today’s billboards average 4 meters tall and 15 meters wide. They are divided into two main categories: static and digital. Static ones, also called vinyl billboards because of the materials used for their face (where the ad is actually placed), display a single advertisement for long periods. This makes them easy for a passerby to see and read clearly. 

Digital billboards are computer-controlled electronic LED displays. One new ad is shown for 6-8 seconds before cycling to the next one; most billboards go through a maximum of 8 ads before repeating them. Those bright and flashy ones on the side of the road advocating a nearby casino or the latest gentlemen’s club are examples of digital billboards. However, they can also be integrated with live updates like the weather report, news, social media feeds, as well as select traffic conditions. An embedded PC houses the digital billboard’s content management system (CMS) to determine which ad will be displayed, what time, and for how long. Recent updates like new graphics, colored text, and signs are quickly editable to digital billboards via WiFi on devices like a rugged industrial tablet.

Both static and digital billboards can be seen on major motorways and highways, reaching a large number of commuters daily. In fact, one in-car study of Americans revealed over 70 percent “often look at the messages on roadside billboards” while on the road. Such visibility makes billboards a big part, literally, of many businesses’ Out Of Home (OOH) advertising. Road Safety Week could be promoted on digital boards displaying the hero(es) of that day followed up by PSAs (discussed below) on safe driving. 

Following VMS Well-Traveled Road in PSA Safety

Using commercial digital billboards to display non-commercial messages is not new. Non-profit groups and governmental agencies do it all the time. In fact, transportation agencies use something similar to a digital billboard called variable message signs (VMS) in the UK and dynamic message signs (DMS) in the US. 

Well-known examples of VMS include those signs over the motorway in that iconic orange LED writing saying ‘slow down’ or ‘traffic ahead’ or ‘5 minutes to junction 6.’ Similar messages are displayed in DMS in the US and also include more nontraditional displays like:

  • Don’t Drink & Drive
  • Visiting In-Laws? Slow Down. Get There Late
  • No Oscar For Best Lead Foot. Slow Down
  • Courteous Driving Is Contagious

Studies have shown improving road travel times using VMS in Europe. In the US, several states commissioned studies on nontraditional messages like the ones above. David Hunt, communications manager for the Department of Transportation for Wisconsin, US, states: “We are very cognizant of the fact that millions of people are going to drive past the messages that go up on our boards, so we just want them to be as easily digested as possible. And if it creates a little bit of conversation when you get back to the office by the water cooler, even better. If people are talking about highway safety, that is a home run for us.” He points to a 2016 study of public perception by the Federal Highway Administration that showed 9 out of 10 Americans considered DMS effective with public service announcements or PSAs. 

The state of Virginia’s more recent 2020 report, Driver Response to Dynamic Message Sign Safety Campaign Messages, studied 26 states that displayed nontraditional messages. Tripp Shealy, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at Virginia Tech and one of the authors of the study, said of it: “The short answer is, yes, they’re effective, but not for everybody. And the message itself really matters.” 

Canceling In-Vehicle Distractions

It’s not a stretch of the imagination that commercial digital billboards could have similar effects on drivers’ motoring habits. And there’s actually no need to imagine it. The Outdoor Media Association, which represents OOH advertising by businesses in Australia, commissioned a study on the impact of roadside advertising on motorists. Specifically, it focused on in-vehicle distractions like looking at one’s mobile phone, eating while driving, and other forms of ‘secondary tasks’ that took a driver’s attention from the road. 

Two different complex intersections were chosen and monitored over the course of four weeks. Data was gathered before the digital billboards were turned on and afterward.

The difference between the two was startling. While lane drifting was unaffected with the billboards turned on, a significant number of drivers were less likely to drive past the stop lines on those intersections and crash into other vehicles. A possible reason is that the driver actually looked up from their in-vehicle distraction upon sighting the billboard.  This led Dr. Roberts, principal researcher for the Australian Road Research Board, to say: “This study showed that it is sometimes possible for a digital sign at an intersection to operate with no negative impact on driver performance, and even, in some cases, to improve it.”

Billboards, from the traditional static ones displaying one ad on its face to the literally flashy digital billboards, can be repurposed for non-commercial uses like promoting Road Safety Week. When done so, they can influence driving habits similar to the public sectors’ VMS and DMS, which have many well-documented studies. If you’re interested on how rugged industrial panel PCs and tablets can work with your commercial billboards or other OOH advertising efforts, contact a Cybernet expert today.