Sun | Dec 9, 2018

Cedric Stephens | Digital distractions

Published:Sunday | September 2, 2018 | 12:00 AM

QUESTION: A few nights ago, I was driving in an easterly direction along the lower part of the newly constructed four-lane Barbican Road in Kingston. My car was in the right lane. Very suddenly, a bright, flashing light from a recently installed digital billboard briefly blinded me. The sign was located beside a church. If a pedestrian had crossed the road, I would not have seen him. Also, I couldn't see anything in my rear-view mirror or in the left lane. My eyes are in good condition. They were tested a few weeks ago. Could the company that erected the billboard and the authority that gave the construction permit be held legally liable if there had been a serious accident?

- B.S., Kingston 8

INSURANCE HELPLINE: The answer to your question is way above my pay grade. I don't have the know-how, qualifications or training to furnish a good answer. The issues that you raised should be posed to some of the young minds that are in training at the two law schools near Papine in Kingston.

Some persons, including from a New Kingston law firm, have mistakenly formed the opinion that I am a member of that profession. They sent two emails inviting me to "add my exceptional talent to join their team". Despite my limitations, I will courtesy of the same search engine that the American president recently childishly tried to trash offer a layman's response to your question.

Colorado law firm Metier LLC offered a partial answer to your question in 2016. Its opinion was published in an article on the company's website. Its views were grounded in the laws of the state of Colorado and federal laws in the United States.

Jamaican laws are often very different from US laws. Research conducted in California in 2009, according to Metier, found that "billboards can negatively affect driver control and speed, especially in older motorists" and that there is "evidence that digital billboards were much more likely to be distracting for motorists".

Digital signs, the lawyers say, pose many risks to motorists. Also, "many cities, including Denver, have banned digital LED billboards" and "regulations are in place because the specific design of billboards can cause less or more distractions".

 

NO BILLBOARDS ON HIGHWAY!

 

Studies were carried out in other countries. A public debate about the risks that billboards posed to motorists took place in Israel a few years earlier. A court there ruled that billboards could not be placed adjacent to one highway and that the existing signage was to be removed or covered up.

A behavioural study found: "Advertising billboards have a negative effect on road safety as they interfere and distract drivers' attention from the primary task of driving ... . attention-demanding advertising (on dynamic billboards, a.k.a digital) might, in complex or unexpected traffic situations, prolong drivers' response time, cause drivers to miss an event requiring a response, or cause a reaction that is not appropriate to the situation."

An outdoor sign manufacturer in the US, predictably, took an opposing view. He cited a US Department of Transportation Federal Highway Administration study, which declared that "digital billboards do not pose a safety risk to passing motorists. Numerous traffic studies and analyses performed in the last couple of decades have come to a similar conclusion."

These are but a very small sample of the millions of items that I found on the subject.

I found this stuff fascinating, especially given the many digital billboards that are being erected around the island. I wonder if the persons who are approving the installation of signs are privy to this information, or whether the signs are simply seen as a source of revenue.

Most interestingly, the new version of The Road Traffic Act, which will become law soon, explicitly recognises some of the risks posed by driving distractions. It bans drivers from using of mobile hand-held electronic or digital devices.

So, on one hand, in-car distractions will be prohibited by law. On the other hand, municipal authorities are granting permission for digital signs to be placed on our roadsides.

These billboards are designed specifically "to draw drivers' attention and distract them from their primary driving task and detract from their vehicle control performance" and, at worst, could lead to more accidents.

Negligence lies at the heart of legal liability. It is defined as "the failure to do an act which a reasonably careful person would do, or the doing of an act which a reasonably careful person would not do under the same or similar circumstances to protect oneself or others from bodily injury, death, or property damage".

There are four elements to negligence: a duty of care, a breach of that duty, causation, and damages. Each of these elements must be present before a claim can succeed.

I will now leave you and the legal minds at your disposal to use the information that I have offered, as well as the abundance of other sources, to seek answers.

- Cedric E. Stephens provides independent information and advice about the management of risks and insurance. For free information or counsel, write to: aegis@flowja.com