Roadside Signs


A crazy week of work and travel has caused a bit of a blog backlog for me, but I am going to try and catch up this week.

Recently, this blog promised to bring you every bit of news about signs that there was. Wednesday’s Capital provided a duo of letters to the editor about roadside signs, including one from the county councilman who reportedly got distracted by a sign and almost got into an accident.

(Speaking of roadside distractions, I was driving back to Maryland from Long Island, NY, via the New Jersey turnpike. Let’s just say I’m happy to live in Maryland.)

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Andiamo! Keep reading below the fold.

I’ve read the many articles and letters about the sign bill introduced by me and County Councilman Josh Cohen, D-Annapolis. A few things have been under-emphasized in the press coverage and thus overlooked by many readers.

The bill does nothing new.

Hold the phone……

Moving signs are already prohibited under county law.

So what are we doing here?

I swear, if we simply enforced the laws we currently have on the books, it would solve so many problems.

Currently, electronic signs must remain “on a cycle of not less than five seconds”, suggesting that during any five-second cycle, the image on an electronic sign may not change (and thus may not move). The bill recently introduced simply clarifies existing law to make it clear to would-be sign purchasers and owners that motion on a sign is prohibited.

I would like to point out how arbitrary this bit of code is. What makes a sign on a 5 second cycle so different from one on a 4 second cycle that one is legal and one is not?

If a government can do something that benefits all parties involved and harms nobody, such an action is called Pareto optimal and should always be undertaken. In most cases, however, governments have to operate in zero-sum games (or negative non-zero sum games)–which basically means that if one person becomes better off, another person becomes worse off. In other words, one interest becomes better off at the expense of another.

In this case, the county has to balance the rights of businesses to make money however they want with the interests of the public. Should the government prohibit bribery? Sure. Should they prohibit signs that move? Does the improvement to society justify the restriction on the businesses’ free speech? Is this the best way to solve the problem of bad drivers? Does it even solve the problem in the first place?

It is plain wrong to suggest that the bill is an unconstitutional restraint on speech. The sign bill is not content-based; rather, it is content neutral.

Of course it is restriction on free speech, even if constitutional. They want to do something–to run their business in a certain way–and you are telling them they can’t. I don’t know what ‘content neutral’ means; has anyone heard of this?

A bill passes muster if it addresses a substantial government interest and leaves open ample alternative channels of communication. In this case, the government does have a substantial interest in driver safety, and there are plenty of ways to communicate an advertisement other than on a moving electronic sign.

Let’s get something straight: the government does not have any interests of its own. Its role is to serve the public interest when the private market cannot. And since when is the test of a bill whether it addresses a problem and encourages communication? A bill passes muster if it is a net benefit to society: that is, if the benefit to society in general outweighs the harm done and additional expense incurred by the bill.

Given the spate of accidents in the last week in Anne Arundel County and the sharp increase in accidents nation-wide owing to driver distraction, it is important that our county focus on driver safety. To that end, readers should expect more legislation coming from my office aimed at minimizing distractions on the road.
County Councilman JAMIE BENOIT, District 4, Odenton

This is just like the argument against the plastic bag bill. I will concede that driver distraction is an issue. But, if you were to go on the gameshow Family Fued, and 100 people were surveyed as to what was the biggest driver distraction, 99 of them would say……….CELL PHONES! (1 person would say roadside memorials are the biggest distraction. Read: foreshadow.) This is obvious. Solve the cell phone problem first, then maybe we can talk about the oh so horrible distractions that are roadside signs.

Let’s hear from someone else.

County legislation to limit of ban video board and roadside advertising is but the first step in removing the unnecessary clutter from the side of our roads. The increasing proliferation of roadside memorials is much more intrusive.

Since I have read through this entire letter, I can inform you that the writer is referring to the small, white crosses, perhaps with flowers, that that families and friends put at the sites where they have lost loved ones to traffic accidents. At least that’s what I think he’s talking about. Let’s hear more.

While roadside and video advertising can be justified as providing a service for taxpaying businesses in the community, there is little that can be said, from a societal perspective, to justify these memorials.

First of all, the signs do not provide a service as much as they are the right of the businesses. Second of all, while there may not be much in support of such memorials, there is not much against them either. Does anyone have a problem with these things? Especially if they are maintained, and/or removed after a period of time? Roadside memorials are, like, the 255th most important problem that I am worried about. That portion of the list goes something like this:

254. My rose bush produced fuschia flowers instead of magenta flowers.
255. Roadside memorials.
256. Why is ‘colonel’ pronounced ‘ker-nal’?

Drivers may be interested in a service that is being advertised. But the vast majority of drivers have no interest in the memorial. It is much more a me thing than a we thing.

Although such memorials benefit only a few people, we still have to look at the balance. By aiding in the grieving process, how much do these memorials help the victims’ families? A lot. And how much do they harm anyone else? Barely, if at all. Since the victims’ families are indeed a part of society, and since the rest of society is unaffected, don’t roadside memorials provide a net benefit to society?

I am sympathetic to the loss of those who erect the memorials. But remembrances should be in the privacy of one’s home, at the grave site, and in one’s heart.

What is worse is that there is an ever-increasing need to make these memorials bigger and more ostentatious.

Another sore point is that these memorials seem to have become permanent fixtures in many spots along public highways, median strips, and front yards. Simple flower arrangements, kept for a short time, would be much more appropriate.

So, if our County Council members are attempting to get rid of roadside eyesores and hazards, they should add these memorials to the list.

I have never really seen a person with an ‘anti-memorial’ policy. I suppose I would support some type of limitations as to the size and neatness of such memorials, but is it such a problem that our elected officials should spend their time and our money legislating it? Probably not.

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