As if motorists who text message and chat on their cell
phones while speeding down the freeway weren’t bad enough, the Vista City
Council wants to add two more distractions to the mix: a pair of oversized,
electronic billboards designed to grab attention from those driving along state
The electronic billboards are planned to be up to 40 feet
high and stretch 48 feet wide. They are targeted for city owned land in the
heart of Vista; one near Melrose Drive, the other near Sycamore Drive.
A divided council on Jan. 8 narrowly approved the misguided
move, for now, claiming the billboards would bring in up to $400,000 in
additional revenue annually to strapped city coffers. And why shouldn’t we
believe our city leaders? After all, these are the same people who spent
millions of dollars on a money-losing water park downtown that is draining
needed funds while the city swims in red ink.
As a retired Navy captain who spent 11 years as a nuclear
submarine officer, I know that good planning is vital for success. And good
planning is sorely lacking from this latest endeavor.
Reasons for opposing the move are many and include visual
pollution, the lack of a city Planning Commission review, and the questionable
methodology in forecasting advertising revenue. In fact, a recent article on
MinnPost.com notes that revenue estimates for electronic billboards can be
overstated. It quoted an advertising manager as saying sales representatives
are having a hard time selling all of the ad space on digital billboards in the
Twin Cities of Minnesota. The LA Times reports that CBS, is getting out of the
sign business. Guess who the chosen contractor is…CBS.
Communities have long recognized the ugliness of freeway
billboards. Most that remain in North County are grandfathered into ordinances
that now ban them.
The biggest problem however is its affront to private
enterprise. That’s because the city has for years, outlawed new billboards for
businesses, but suddenly carves out an exception for itself. Bold language
remains in the sign ordinance against upgrading existing privately-owned
billboards to digital or installing any new one. Ask any council or staff
person how they can justify this and you get a blank stare. I asked several.
Not to be overlooked is the issue of driver safety. While
the Vista city staff report downplays safety studies, the obvious purpose of
the billboard is to grab the driver’s attention away from the road.
According to a recent study by the Swedish National Road and Transport
Research Institute that was funded by the Swedish government, motorists look at
digital billboards much longer than they do your standard variety signs. What’s
worse is the study found digital billboards often take a motorist’s eyes off
the road for more than two seconds. Tie that in with a National Highway Traffic
Administration study that found distractions of more than two seconds is a
potential cause of crashes and near crashes, and you have the recipe for daily
disasters. Fact is, anything that distracts a driver’s attention can
potentially be fatal, which is why texting while driving is outlawed in California.
Despite such concerns, this proposal sailed through the
city’s bureaucracy under the radar with no public review. Among the more
concerned residents are those belonging to South Vista Communities who said
they were given no information and believe the issue would have went before the
new council members were seated had they not raised questions following an informal query in early November.
No surprise, then, that most of the 30-something people addressing the council were opposed to the digital billboards. Of the entities supporting the move, most were anxious for handouts from city with free advertising.
But all is not lost. The council’s Jan. 8 action gave city staff the go-ahead to negotiate a contract with CBS Outdoor. Another dozen or so residents spoke out against the billboards at the following council meeting. The contract will have to come to the council for approval before anything can be built.
Let’s hope the council comes to its senses before then.
Cliff Kaiser is a retired Navy captain and a small business owner in Vista