The Fallacies of Signs, Amortization and Traffic Accidents

Some Policy Considerations For Sign Legislation

The following article originally appeared in the September 1973 issue of Signs of the Times magazine.

By Dr. R. James Claus

Opponents of commercial signage in general and of billboards have recently opined that limiting the “proliferation of signs” in our society is necessary because signs cause “information overload.” Given the imperfect state of knowledge in perceptual psychology, it’s impossible to define what “information overload” is. Regardless, signs don’t excessively stress the ability of the human mind to process information.

The psychologist (George Miller) whose past research is being used to support this claim has already disclaimed the validity of this conclusion, having explicitly stated that his research never made claims that could be construed in this way. In one document, in which he denies the relevance of his findings to this argument, he states, “It is impossible to predict from the physical properties of a perceptual situation what an observer will be able to identify correctly. Such predictions must take into account the observer’s uncertainty about what he expects to see.”

The literature on perception points to other reasons why it would be impossible to determine the limits on one’s ability to process information. For instance, the phenomenon of “pattern recognition” enables a person to recognize a familiar group of letters (a word) so readily he doesn’t read the letters individually. Another curious fact of memory allows each of us to “see” an image after the actual physical stimulus has been removed. Doctoral dissertations have been written on the process of remembering things that were never within a person’s “focal attention.” The whole problem of information processing in humans is so abtruse that it’s irrelevant to the question of sign control.

Those who would like to restrict commercial signs also say signs are responsible for traffic accidents. Interestingly enough, one study produced evidence to support that claim, but the study’s credibility soon became suspect and was invalidated. The seriousness of correcting the wrong done by this report brought it to the attention of public officials. This report, conducted by the Madigan-Hyland consulting team, was proclaimed in the Congressional Record (May 9, 1963) to be of little import:

“This report has been challenged by outstanding leaders in the field of investigation of accident causation. Their consensus opinion stated the analysis of data made by Madigan-Hyland was inadequate; that the conclusions were invalid, statistically unsound, completely without foundation and unsupportable under any professionally statistical standards.

“Other evidence is easily available to confirm that commercial signs are not the cause of accidents.

This in general summarizes the results of a three-year study indicating our results and how they check with studies made of the actual situation on the highway. We have had a great many calls from different parts of the country for the basic results. We are quite certain changes have been effected in the proposed regulations for controlling or eliminating signs along certain types of roadways. One large insurance company states that out of 100,000 accidents in all parts of the country, they have no record of an advertising sign being alleged to be a cause of accidents. The only reasonable conclusion is that the claim that advertising signs cause accidents is not true.”

A. R. Lauer
Driving Efficiency Requires Optimal Stimulation
Police, January/February 1959, 37-39

Other testimony could be provided but is unnecessary. If any substantial proof existed that commercial signs were responsible, that fact would have been widely publicized. For example, the Highway Beautification Act of 1965 would have at least made mention of this causal relationship, but, of course, it does not. The signs known to contribute to accidents are traffic signs. They are sometimes hazardous, not because there is interference from a commercial sign, but because they are either unfavourably placed, or illegible, or have failed to meet other requirements of effective signage. The extreme danger is now known as to placing signs where the driver is making a critical decision, such as in an underpass. But this should not be confused with commercial signage. (Cirillo, Dietz & Beatty, Analysis and Modeling of the Interstate System. prepared for the Office of Research and Development, Traffic Systems Division, U.S. Department of Transportation, 1969, page 20.)

The purpose of this digression, on the questionable objections raised in sign regulation, has been to document how difficult it is to determine that an arbitrary change in legislation constitutes a substantial reason for requiring a sign’s removal. This premise is particularly grave if the offending sign is to be eliminated through the use of amortization. The irony of proposing amortization as a means to deal with problems of sign controls is that it could well, as history shows us, become a threat to those who favor its use.

There was a time in U. S. history when economic expansion was so important, that industrial or commercial land uses were looked upon as preferential zoning. That is, industry took preference over other sectors of the community in its selection of a site. The familiar current situation of giving priority to housing is fairly recent. Formerly, cities developed around industrial plants because the factories occupied the most desirable locations — a difficult concept for 20th-Century individuals to comprehend. Conceivably, our economy, in its need for ever scarcer resources, could have to defer to industry wishes again. Should this situation occur, the practice of amortization of private property on the books as a means of controlling unwanted land uses would be highly undesirable.

Amortization’s use should be approached very cautiously because of its deceptive nature: It appears to be a very simple regulatory measure. It seems appropriate for putting restraints on a particular land use. The difficulty is that the basis for amortization is rarely clear.

In theory, amortization protects individuals from disagreeable conditions. For instance, consider an old factory that once stood in a field — a factory that operated 18 or 24 hours per day, belching smoke and causing heavy traffic. Now, it’s no longer isolated, and is now surrounded by houses. Surely this would be an ideal for amortization. Remarkably, such a clear-cut situation rarely exists. More often, preferences for patterns of land use shift in a city; a use that was once acceptable within a zone or on a building loses its appeal. These changes reflect trends in ideas of how a city should look.

In some cities, as attitudes change, the owner of the affected land use is not burdened with the responsibility of removing it. The logic of this tolerant approach is that the owner has been acting in accordance with the rules that once existed. He is not considered guilty of any offense. The city accepts the existence of a nonconforming use and is content with putting regulations on the upkeep and maintenance of it. Recently, however, a new species of control has been introduced that has no provisions for tolerating the land use that has become non-conforming or illegal. Instead, one finds schedules for amortization, not only for accessory land uses, but for main land uses as well.

Discussion of the fairness of such new regulation schemes tends to concentrate on the equitable amount of time for the amortization. This seems insignificant next to the question of what checks are to be placed on the exercise of this power. As was mentioned earlier, under law, a billboard is a land use, which means that it is legally equivalent to a house. If, therefore, one condones the use of amortization in the control of billboards, there seems to be no legal restraint on applying the same treatment to houses. If, for instance, it was deemed feasible to amortize out all housing in which unsafe electrical conditions exist, the results might be disastrous. In an older city as much as 90% of the housing would be unable to meet the current standards.

Realistically, the need to amortize in such a case can be avoided by viewing electrical deficiencies as items of depreciation in a house. Likewise, when material specifications for modern homes are applied to older structures, the materials of the older homes prove unacceptable. But amortization is rarely used, as one recalls from earlier remarks, because the housing is in other ways adequate. But failure to meet standards is faithfully enforced with respect to signage. The fact to bear in mind is that amortization is all but impossible to enforce in a way that is not discriminatory. Therefore, one questions whether it ever provides a solution.


Photo by Redd Angelo on Unsplash

Wade Swormstedt

Wade Swormstedt

Wade is Executive Director of the Foundation for the Advancement of the Sign Industry. Formerly he was Editor and Publisher of Signs of the Times magazine.

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Posted in Amoritzation, Research, Sign Codes, Traffic Safety.