Shedding some light on legality of bright signs

Q: In Kennewick, there are several large signs near the street. One is a large LED sign that flashes from subdued colors to mostly bright white, giving your eyes no time to adjust. Another has bright white lights that all blink at the same time. Are there any safety laws to protect bright lights from interfering with a driver’s eyesight at night?

A: In 1982, the movie Blade Runner envisioned a future (set in 2019) with flying cars, synthetic humans and a Los Angeles population of 106 million people. It was way off on those predictions, but it nailed one thing for sure: digital billboards. Their pervasive presence adds to the dystopian future that the film imagines.

Twenty or so years later, the first digital billboards started showing up along highways in the real world. Now digital signs are so abundant it feels like they’ve always been there. Billboards have been around along time, gaining popularity in the 1830s as a way to announce the circus coming to town. It took over 100 years, but by the 1960s Washington adopted laws to regulate outdoor advertising along state highways.

We now have the “Highway Advertising Control Act–Scenic Vistas Act,” an entire chapter in state law. The purpose of the law is to “promote the public health, safety, welfare, convenience and enjoyment of public travel” and to conserve natural beauty and scenic areas along our state highways. That’s a lot to expect from a group of laws that regulate signs, but those laws do play a part in traffic safety.

The law includes some prohibitions about illuminated signs near roadways. It prohibits “signs which contain, include or are illuminated by any flashing, intermittent or moving light,” with a few exceptions for public service signs that provide information like the time and temperature. The law also prohibits signs that allow light to shine on the highway at “such intensity or brilliance as to cause glare or impair the vision” of a driver or “otherwise interfere” with driving.

From what you’ve described, you’ve found a couple signs that violate state law, assuming they’re along a state highway. But what if they’re on a city street? State law says nothing about county and city roads, but local laws do. For example, the Kennewick has a section on signs with prohibitions similar to the state law.

Kennewick’s law aims to “minimize the distraction to motorists, bicyclists and pedestrians from signs” and prohibits signs with unshielded lights or strobe-like lights.

When we talk about distracted driving, we often jump to cell phones, and with good reason; they’re probably our most-serious distraction. But they’re not the only one. Distractions outside the vehicle contribute to up to 9 percent of vehicle crashes. Billboards can be a distraction, and signs with changing displays draw attention from drivers more than static displays. And as you mentioned, the glare from bright signs at night can impair a driver’s ability to see.

When there’s a sign that’s also a driving hazard, who enforces the law? On state highways, it’s the Department of Transportation. At the local level, your city or county has a person or department responsible for code enforcement. A talk with the sign owner or the code enforcement folks could help keep Washington from becoming the kind of place Blade Runner predicted (at least with signs).

Doug Dahl writes a weekly column for this newspaper. He is with the state Traffic Safety Commission.