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On my way to the office, I thought of counting all the billboards I could see along the seven-kilometer EDSA stretch from Roxas Boulevard in Pasay to Pioneer Street in Mandaluyong. I only tallied sizable billboards mounted on metal-frame structures and excluded the countless banners on the pillars of the MRT. Total count? About 100 billboards, give or take a few. That's an average of some 14 billboards for every kilometer traveled on EDSA. Again, that number still doesn't include posters and banners, which should easily work out to another hundred sources of on-road distraction.

My question now is this: How come no one seems to think that billboards are accidents waiting to happen? It appears to me that billboard advertising is generally considered glamorous but not unsafe, hip but not intrusive. Companies even regularly one-up each other when unveiling a new billboard. The higher the shock value, the better--a sweaty, half-naked Piolo Pascual comes to mind. I'm actually alarmed that of all the billboards on EDSA, I instinctively remember the one showing a shirtless man.

Billboards violate the most basic principle of road safety, which is that the driver needs to focus his full attention on the road. Not 50 percent, not 75 percent, not even 95 percent. The minimum requirement of safe driving is 100-percent concentration. Of course, that is virtually impossible because, while behind the wheel, the driver fiddles with the radio and adjusts the climate control and talks with the passengers. But that is precisely the point. There is enough distraction inside the car already. The last thing a driver needs is a wax-like Vicki Belo staring him down like he badly needs rhinoplasty.

The Outdoor Advertising Association of the Philippines will tell you billboards do not distract drivers. Of course they will. You'd do the same if you were earning a fortune from them. But you drive and I drive. We all know how distracting billboards can be. Now, just for argument's sake, let's consider the facts.

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What is the objective of advertisers when they put up billboards? To get attention. Whose attention? The consumers'. Who are these consumers on the highway? The passengers? I don't think so. As far as I know, I fall asleep when I'm a passenger. I don't look out the window to gawk at a pregnant Dawn Zulueta if I'm not the one driving. Dozing off is the favorite activity of most passengers inside a moving vehicle. Hop into a public-utility bus and I assure you that more than half of its occupants are dead to the world.

The way most billboards are positioned--which is facing the oncoming traffic--clearly indicates they are not targeted at passengers seated in the back of a vehicle. Billboards, then, are aimed at the front occupants of the vehicle, and that includes the driver. Factor in the statistical fact that many people drive alone, and it erases any doubt that it's the drivers who mostly look at billboards.

What further amazes me is that some advertising agencies--or whoever it is that makes these billboards--don't know the distinction between print-publication advertising and billboard advertising. I see a lot of billboards that would look perfect inside a magazine, but should have no place on a highway. I refer to those billboards that are text-heavy--some of them even displaying promo mechanics in fine print. Yes, in fine print! Most have e-mail and website addresses. Hello? You expect motorists to take out a pen and jot down those details while traveling at 80kph?

And now they've even rolled out those extremely bright digital billboards, or LED screens showing motion pictures. It's like putting a giant TV right in the middle of the road. Advertisers must think EDSA is one big living room where people lounge around and sip cocktail drinks. Fantastic.

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I'm a fan of advertising and marketing. But they have proper venues, and the road is simply not one of them. Drivers need both eyes to be glued to the road--not to the cleavage of Marian Rivera. Many low-speed fender-benders could have been avoided if the drivers involved had paid undivided attention to their driving.

Car manufacturers spend millions of dollars in R&D just to ensure that their vehicles' cockpits are as clutter-free as possible so as not to distract the driver. Instrument panels have been redesigned and repositioned. Heads-up displays have been made available more widely. Audio and climate controls have been integrated into a single controller. All these improvements have been brought about by the auto industry's desire to enhance driver focus on the road. Billboards negate every single one of them.

Those in the billboard business will probably say: "Well, if you don't like our billboards, no one is forcing you to look at them." But how this is possible, I have no idea. Because I don't know how to drive blindfolded. Billboards are practically everywhere. You have better chances of not receiving a text message in a day than not laying eyes on a billboard if you live in the city.

I guess I'll just have to continue praying I won't dream of Piolo at night. I feel dirty every time I do.

Vernon B. Sarne
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