SACRAMENTO — Electronic billboards have been sprouting up all over California, flashing digital ads for SUVs and soft drinks and, some say, creating a dangerous distraction for drivers.
Alarmed at the proliferation of the signs, a group of state lawmakers from Los Angeles on Friday proposed a two-year moratorium on electronic billboards in the state.
The proposal comes a month after L.A. adopted a three-month ban on all billboards and follows a decision by the Federal Highway Administration to launch a multimillion-dollar study to determine whether the changing electronic messages pose a road hazard.
"We should not be erecting more digital billboards until we know whether they are safe," said Assemblyman Mike Feuer (D-Los Angeles), who has written state legislation seeking the moratorium.
The coalition behind the measure includes Democratic Assemblymen Felipe Fuentes of Sylmar and Bob Blumenfield of Woodland Hills, and environmental groups such as Scenic America.
"This is an important step for California to take," said Kevin Fry, president of Scenic America. "It is a prudent and responsible approach to a contentious issue."
The billboard industry and some of Feuer's colleagues are preparing to fight the moratorium proposal. Some lawmakers say that limiting the ability of businesses to market their products when the state is in a recession makes no sense.
"The last thing we need to be doing in this economy is putting up roadblocks to potential investment," said state Sen. George Runner (R-Lancaster). "We need to give people tools to help stimulate the economy, not take them away."
Runner has supported a pending review by Caltrans of whether the state should allow electronic ads to be shown on 674 Amber Alert signs along freeways as a way to raise money for maintaining roads. The senator said he would consider legislation to allow the program if it were feasible and proposed with reasonable restrictions.
Feuer's bill would block the conversion of Amber Alert signs for commercial use during the moratorium and prevent the erection of new digital signs. Violators would be fined $3,500 per day.
"The scientific evidence that exists does not support an effort to ban them," said Jeff Golimowski, a spokesman for the Outdoor Advertising Assn. of America.
California is one of 39 states that allow digital billboards, he said.
Fuentes said the two-year pause would allow state transportation officials to thoroughly consider reports expected during the next year on digital billboards and traffic safety.
The biggest study, by the Federal Highway Administration, is expected to be completed by the end of this year and will use devices measuring eye movement to see how long motorists take their vision off the road when spotting electronic billboards with changing messages, according to Doug Hecox, an agency spokesman.
"The study is intended to find out if these new technology signs do cause any kind of problem," Hecox said.
A separate review of dozens of existing research projects is expected to be released in the next month by the National Cooperative Highway Research Program and is expected to show that some data do raise safety concerns.
"The jury is still out, but there are many people who raise questions about the safety," said Jerry Wachtel, the principal investigator on the project.