Digital billboards glow in the day and light up the night sky while you’re driving on Interstate 65 through Greenwood, but they’re still rare in other parts of the metro area.
The illuminated billboards along the highway tell drivers what’s on television tonight, where to stop for supper and when there’s an amber alert for a missing child. They’re like big television screens but show only static images that change two or three times a minute.
The technology is state-of-the-art but is rare in central Indiana because many communities ban the LED billboards.
Franklin, Johnson County, Indianapolis, Fishers, Carmel and Shelbyville all ban the digital billboards. Those cities have concerns about distracted drivers, light pollution and how they look.
They all require permits before anyone can put up a billboard, and all place restrictions on them, such as that they have to be so far off the road and can’t be too close to residential neighborhoods. Greenwood, for instance, allows billboards to be built only along Interstate 65 and requires that they be at least 1,000 feet apart, planning director Ed Ferguson said.
Digital billboards have been replacing the older-style ones in Greenwood over the past few years, largely because the city’s rules allow them, Ferguson said. Greenwood recently updated its regulations to permit the LED billboards as long as they follow certain rules, such as limiting the brightness and keeping images fixed in place for at least 20 seconds.
Four digital billboards have been erected, and the city hasn’t gotten any complaints about them, Ferguson said.
They also haven’t caused any increase in accidents along the interstate or been blamed for any crashes, Fire Chief James Sipes said.
“Any distraction can cause an accident,” he said. “But the majority of accidents we deal with involve something internal with the car, whether bending down to grab something, texting or dialing on a phone. Those are far more significant driver distractions.”
Drivers could see more digital billboards in Greenwood in the future.
No new billboards can be built within current city limits because of how far they have to be spaced apart, Ferguson said. But the billboard owners have been replacing regular billboards with the new digital ones that rotate through images because they can sell more ads and make more money, he said.
They also don’t have to send workers out to change the ads, because they can do it by remote control in an office, Ferguson said.
“It’s the new technology,” he said. “They’re all going that way.”
Franklin does not allow digital billboards because of safety reasons, associate planner Kevin Tolloty said. The city recently updated its sign rules to allow smaller electronic signs that allow pharmacies or other stores to show special deals or the price of products.
Tolloty said there had been no recent discussion of changing the ban on digital billboards or requests to lift it.
Shelbyville also prohibits the billboards for safety reasons, specifically a concern that they might be too head-turning, planning and building director Dann Bird said. The city is concerned that drivers could get into fender-benders because they’re paying more attention to the bright signs than they are to the vehicle in front of them.
“They get attention and divert attention,” he said. “It can be dangerous if you’re not keeping an eye on traffic.”
Various studies have differed on whether digital billboards result in more accidents, but Indianapolis city planners have seen enough research saying that they’re a safety hazard, Department of Metropolitan Development spokesman Joe Bartholomew said.
Indianapolis is concerned that drivers won’t be as safe if their eyes are wandering over to billboards to scan images as they change, Bartholomew said. The billboards also raise other concerns, such as that some people consider them unsightly and that they detract from the surrounding scenery, he said.
Currently, the only two digital billboards in the city are on the Indiana State Fairgrounds and near Lucas Oil Stadium, Bartholomew said.
Those exceptions are allowed because they’re on state-owned property, and the state allows such billboards.
Billboard companies sued in an effort to install the digital billboards elsewhere in Marion County, but a judge upheld the ban. The companies likely will continue to pressure the city to allow the digital billboards because it’s in their interest to do so, Indianapolis senior planner David Hittle said.
But he said residents likely would oppose any easing of the restrictions.
“Generally speaking, there’s been pushback against the aesthetics of billboards over the past decade,” he said. “People aren’t going to go for it when they go one step beyond with a bright animated video screen. There would be political pushback.”