SACRAMENTO — In a state that has restricted cellphone use by drivers and appears poised to bar motorists from text messaging, the Schwarzenegger administration is considering a plan that could create a new distraction: advertisements on freeway signs used for Amber Alerts and other emergencies.
The money-making scheme, already broached to federal officials who allocate highway funds, would allow businesses to post ads on California's 674 electronic roadside message boards.
State officials figure the cash-strapped highway fund could make millions by allowing ads when the signs are not in use for emergencies.
But some traffic safety advocates say the potential revenue is not worth the costs of tempting drivers to take their eyes off the road.
"The biggest issue with digital billboards is they are enormously distracting to motorists," said Kevin E. Fry, a traffic safety advocate and longtime billboard opponent.
Others express concern that ads would add visual blight and change the purpose of a system meant to save children and help drivers.
The idea for the signs came from Clear Channel Outdoor, a billboard company that potentially stands to gain from the proposal.
The firm is a major donor to state politicians.
The proposal has won at least tentative support from state Sen. George Runner (R-Lancaster), who wrote the bill that created the Amber Alert system in California and is the author of numerous public safety measures.
"I think it's a very fine idea," Runner said. "Whenever you start talking about advertising, you have to be very careful about how you go down that path. But it has the potential to provide tens of millions of dollars for highway repair."
Legislation proposing the ads has been drafted with Runner's involvement. And the Schwarzenegger administration has touted the idea in a letter to U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary E. Peters; a federal waiver would be needed for new use of the freeway signs.
"The department's system of changeable message signs could be enhanced through private-sector participation," wrote Will Kempton, director of the California Department of Transportation. "In exchange for use of the space on the signs for commercial purposes, businesses could enhance the level of graphics, provide a steady income source, and use state-of-the-art technology to increase the quality of transportation and safety-related messages that are relayed on the signs."
Kempton and Runner said in interviews that work remains before the state decides whether to pursue the proposal.
"This needs to be fully vetted," Kempton said. "There could be safety implications."
Under the proposal, the winner of a bidding process would replace the state's old emergency message signs with new LED or other video screens at no cost to the state.
Dave Ackerman, a lobbyist for Clear Channel Outdoor, said he recently drove by one sign during an Amber Alert and could not read the license plate number it gave because so many lightbulbs were burned out.
And the alerts describe makes and models of cars that many motorists might not know, he said.
"I have no idea what a Pontiac Tempest looks like," Ackerman said, adding that the proposed signs could show a picture.
Others say the signs would be eyesores. And victims'-rights advocates decried the proposal as crass.
"I don't think it's appropriate at all," said Marc Klaas, who heads a foundation to protect children. He is the father of Polly Klaas, a 12-year-old who was raped and murdered in 1993.
Runner said the location and content of the ads would be strictly controlled to make sure they are safe and appropriate.
And the draft legislation says, "Advertisements should be placed on emergency message signs within the network in a manner that does not detract from the public-service announcement function."
Still, one opponent of the ads says they are a bad idea even though the state needs money.
"If we need to do this to get money, maybe the state should go ahead and open a brothel," said Ted Wu of the Coalition to Ban Billboard Blight. He said the next logical step would be to sell ad space on the state Capitol.
Wu, of Los Angeles, said motorists are already bombarded with ugly ads on privately owned billboards, and the state should not add to that.
"It's visual pollution at its worst," Wu said.
Clear Channel and its subsidiaries have contributed $1.2 million to state campaigns and politicians in the last five years.
Their contributions include $50,000 worth of billboard advertising for a Schwarzenegger-controlled committee supporting Propositions 57 and 58, which related to the state's budget problems, in 2004.
Kempton said the proposal is consistent with Schwarzenegger's position that state government should cooperate more with the private sector.
"We're not going to be able to upgrade our services unless we can get some outside investment," Kempton said.