I'll never forget it as long as I live. It was one of the most embarrassing moments in my life, but it could have happened to anyone. I was high school age and living in Buffalo, N.Y. We lived in a hotel/apartment building, and once in a while my dad and I would stand in front of the building, talk and watch the traffic go by. This particular day I noticed an old buddy of mine drive by. Without thinking I yelled out his name, and as he turned his head to return my greeting he plowed into the car in front of him that had stopped for a red light. I was petrified and really didn't know what to do. But I did know that if it hadn't been for me the accident probably wouldn't have happened. I was quite shaken. It sure taught me a lesson about not distracting people when they're in the midst of doing something as involved as driving a car.
Because of that incident, an article in a recent Sunday New York Times really caught my eye. It was on the Ideas and Trends page headlined "Reading at 55 Miles Per Hour" with a subhead "Roadside billboards don't have to say, `Yo! Look Up!' to cause trouble on the ground." The article discusses distracting signs and billboards, including an incident that occurred in Dallas in 1993 when one car rear-ended another as both were entering the grounds of the Dallas/Fort Worth airport. Two of the passengers in the car that rammed the other were hurt and sued American Airlines, claiming their driver was distracted by the electronic signs the airline had erected to give motorists information on flight arrivals and departures. These were no ordinary signs, however, because they stand some five stories high. On my many trips to Dallas, when heading for an outbound flight, I've found the signs quite helpful in obtaining gate information.
A jury apparently didn't see them as helpful. The two individuals who sued American were awarded $20 million. The jury ruled American had not heeded the warnings of traffic experts who said the signs were indeed a road hazard. Consequently, since the judgment, American has pulled the plug on the signs.
But this subject isn't quite so simple. There's a lot of controversy over just how dangerous billboards really are. The New Jersey Turnpike Authority realized this when it researched the feasibility of putting up billboards and renting them to advertisers to raise extra revenues. One California study found that accident rates were 41% higher when billboards were visible from the roadway. Other research, however, found no link whatsoever, which is what the turnpike authority was looking for. In June of last year the authority approved the signs.
But take it from me, billboards sometimes can be extremely distracting. I commute to work in my car every day that I'm not traveling and take a major expressway to the downtown Chicago area. Although the traffic is heavy, it moves fairly well. But suddenly last spring everything came to a screeching halt-literally. What I didn't know until I saw it was that a clothing store had painted the likeness of Dennis Rodman, the Chicago Bulls basketball player, in full color, hair and all, on the side of a warehouse next to the expressway. The chaos that caused for the next few weeks was incredible. Traffic slowed to a near standstill, and some drivers even pulled over to take pictures. Finally, the store relented and painted over Rodman's image. Traffic returned to normal.
In the case of Dallas, what are people going to do when they arrive at the airport and want to know what gate their flight is leaving from? American says passengers can get their gate information by phone. But how many accidents will occur when passengers get on their car phones to call for flight information?
Charles S. Lauer