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The LAPD Hopes Digital Billboards Can Reach Distracted Drivers

Clear Channel Outdoor’s signs will flash safety messages

L.A. is trying to reach digitally distracted drivers, digitally. Mustafahacalaki/Getty Images

In addition to being famous for its per capita concentration of movie stars, Los Angeles has a distinction that it's far less eager to boast about. It's among the most dangerous cities in America if you happen to be a pedestrian crossing the street. A 2012 report by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration ranked L.A. as the No. 2 city for pedestrian-related traffic fatalities, with 99 people killed that year (only New York was worse). Los Angeles also notches an astonishing 20,000 hit-and-run incidents every year—of both pedestrians and other vehicles—and has seen that number rising steadily.

One reason behind these alarming numbers is Angelenos' cultural attachment to their digital devices, which makes a recently announced initiative especially notable. The Los Angeles Police Department has partnered with Clear Channel Outdoor—owner of many of the city's mega billboards, including several of its digital ones—to transmit safety messages aimed at drivers. In a variation of fighting fire with fire, L.A. is essentially enlisting a digital communications company to reach digitally distracted motorists.

"They're on the phone, they hit someone, and then they flee," is how Captain Ann E. Young of the LAPD put it.

Young explains that the current campaign actually has two components. The billboard advisories (which include messages like "Man vs. Machine … The Machine Always Wins") remind motorists that leaving the scene of an accident is a crime. But plenty of those hit-and-runs are caused by drivers who have their eyes on a smartphone instead of the road—despite California's law banning the use of handheld phones while driving.

"As people go along, they get so focused on themselves they don't realize what's going on around them," said Clear Channel Outdoor's public affairs director Layne Lawson. "We're just trying to get the message out."

And, no doubt, the company will. CCO will put the safety messages on 10 of its traditional and five of its digital signs. "People look at billboards," Officer Young said. "They're a great way of advertising."

The strange twist is that L.A. has had deeply mixed views of its flashy electronic signs—which some neighborhoods have banned. Moreover, while in this case, digital billboards are promoting driver safety, critics have charged that such signs are actually part of the digital distractions to motorists. "Digital billboards," Newport Beach attorney Jim Ballidis has blogged, " … have garnered widespread criticism from safety advocates and lawyers in Orange County, Los Angeles and throughout California who claim they pose a significant distraction to drivers and, as a consequence, contribute to car accidents."

Several studies on that question have yielded inconclusive results, however, and Lawson pointed out that the federal government considers digital billboards to be "safety neutral. We think it speaks volumes that the LAPD leans on billboards for their power to communicate a message in a very visible and memorable way," he said.

Meanwhile, the safety messages on the billboards will probably not address yet another contributing factor to L.A.'s accident-prone streets: digitally distracted pedestrians.

A 2014 study by the Pew Charitable Trusts revealed that as many as 10 percent of pedestrian injuries in the United States are caused by "distracted walking"—people strolling down the street with headphones blaring and their eyes trained on handheld devices, many of whom literally walk into cars. According to Pew, "the combination of distracted walking and distracted driving is commonly blamed for the recent increase in pedestrian deaths," which are up 35 percent since 2010.

To Officer Young, however, the big problem remains the behavior of motorists in this city that's as addicted to smartphones as it is to automobiles. "I don't know if we're ever going to solve that problem," she said. "Even when I'm off duty, I see people in their cars texting away—and they're on the freeway! I don't know how they do it."

This story first appeared in the Nov. 16 issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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