Roadside ads distract drivers

By Fred Kuhlman • maart 23rd, 2009

New Monash University research proves visual clutter around our roads, including prominent advertising, signs or billboards, can be a distraction hazard for drivers – especially older ones.

It found the distractions delay drivers’ ability to detect a change around them – such as a vehicle changing lanes – by an average of half a second. Older drivers took the longest to react.

The comprehensive work from the Monash University Accident Research Centre (MUARC) has important implications for the design and regulation of road environments, and could lead to a new debate around the need for tighter advertising restrictions along our roads and highways.

“Driving on a typical major road is a complex activity, where drivers must process large amounts of visual information which continuously changes, and make decisions at speed,” researcher Jessica Edquist said.

“The research is very clear: as drivers we can only look at and pay attention to one thing at a time. When we are looking at a sign or a billboard, we are not looking at the road, leading to a higher accident risk.

“The amount of visual information is increasing on our roads, due to higher traffic density, more complex traffic management systems, increased commercial roadside development and increasing pressure on road authorities to permit advertising next to major roads.”

Ms Edquist conducted a series of tests with more than 100 drivers, almost half using MUARC’s hi-tech advanced driving simulator. She found drivers were distracted by billboards – they drove more slowly, took longer to change lanes in response to road signs and made more errors when changing lanes.

Older drivers in particular had difficulty detecting changes on the road and in following road sign instructions in busy environments. The finding is crucial as, due to an ageing population, there are more people aged over 65 and more are staying on the road despite age.

Ms Edquist said road authorities should carefully regulate billboards, declaring billboard-free distances around areas of high driver workload such as intersections, merges and freeway exits.

“Road authorities should also remove excessive signage, and give advance warning of hazardous situations with ‘priming’ road signs to spread the cognitive workload. These adjustments are especially important for busy roads with many other vehicles, cyclists or pedestrians,” she said.

Her work has already led to changes in Queensland and will provide evidence to bolster the arguments made by road authorities that roadside advertising should sometimes be restricted on safety grounds.

Ms Edquist described three types of clutter: situational (mostly road traffic), designed (road markings and signage) and built (buildings, shop signs, and advertising billboards, making backgrounds visually complex). They needed to be considered together as they all contribute to driver workload.



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