(USA TODAY) - Communities around the country increasingly are in fights over digital billboards: glaring, changeable roadside signs that visually scream for attention.
Critics, such as the conservation group Scenic America, call them "TV on a stick" that distract drivers, disfigure the landscape and disturb the sleep of nearby residents.
Proponents, including billboard companies, battle to keep the signs up as a flexible, legal advertising medium that allows them to reach consumers on the go.
The number of digital billboards on local streets and freeways has exploded since the federal government in 2007 allowed them on interstate highways - from 1,800 to 4,000 since 2010, according to industry group Outdoor Advertising Association of America.
Also known as electronic billboards, the signs are visible from much farther away than traditional billboards, especially at night. They change every four to 10 seconds, and can display multiple messages from one or more advertisers.
They create "a Las Vegas effect," says county Commissioner Richard Briggs of Knox County, Tenn., who's trying to stop companies from converting existing billboards into digital signs.
"I'm very pro-business, but I believe in protecting the aesthetic of our community," Briggs says. "I like Las Vegas, but that's not what we want here in the cradle of Southern Appalachia."
A key issue: whether they distract drivers. Previous studies, some funded by the industry, have gone both ways. A new Swedish study concludes that they attract "more and longer glances" than regular traffic signs but says, "whether they are a traffic safety hazard, cannot be answered conclusively based on the present data."
Mary Tracy, president of Scenic America, a national non-profit conservation group whose local chapters oppose digital billboards, points out that Sweden ordered digital billboards removed after the study.
Ken Klein, vice president of the Outdoor Advertising Association of America, says the signs don't distract drivers. He calls the Swedish study "an apples-to-oranges comparison" for the USA because of differences in the sizes and locations of the signs.
He says advertisers like digital billboards, which average about $250,000 apiece and comprise 1% of all billboards, because "they are flexible, the copy is easy to change, and there are no production costs."
Around the USA, pitched battles over digital billboards are playing out in different ways:
• Knox County is one of many communities, including Pittsburgh; Montgomery, Ill., and Kalamazoo, Mich., seeking to stop the spread of the signs. The Allegheny County, Pa., commission recently voted unanimously against allowing the county to lease vacant lots for additional billboards. "There were very few people, other than the industry themselves, who spoke up for the billboards," says Mike Dawida, executive director of Scenic Pittsburgh. Rochester, Minn., Mayor Ardell Brede just vetoed the City Council's approval of a digital billboard, but is concerned his veto will be overridden.
• Some communities that banned digital billboards are seeing their actions struck down after constitutional challenges from billboard companies. This month, a state superior court judge struck down as unconstitutional a digital billboard ban in Franklin Township, N.J.
• Other communities are relaxing restrictions. Clay County, Fla., just lifted a ban on new digital billboards that had been in place since 2004. Peoria, Ariz., is moving toward allowing the signs after the state Legislature last fall removed a prohibition on new digital billboards along state highways. The Legislature had said new digital billboards couldn't be within 75 miles of the state's three large observatories because astronomers found the signs disrupted their star-gazing.
The Federal Highway Administration relaxed a rule against digital billboards on federal highways in 2007, saying they don't violate the 1965 Highway Beautification Act's ban on signs with "intermittent," "flashing" or "moving" lights.
Scenic America sued last week in federal court in Washington, D.C., to overturn the ruling. Tracy says the group "pleaded" with the highway administration for five years to revoke the rule before suing.
Jonathan Adkins of the Governors Highway Safety Association says "there is probably some amount of distraction, but the question is how much and how serious? It's premature to seek a ban on these billboards."
John Ulczycki of the National Safety Council says, however, that they are "a risk, and one we are watching."
Meanwhile, Kirk Pristas, 37, of Navarre, Fla., just wants the digital billboard that is 150 yards from his home gone.
"It's like somebody shining a spotlight into your house, blinking it on and off," he says. "I'd like to go to the people's house who put it there and shine a spotlight in their window."
Larry Copeland, USA TODAY