billboards.adv TS 792.jpg

'Big Truck Wreck?' asks a billboard along I-10 near the pedestrian overpass at Nairn Drive, Thursday, April 4, 2019. Louisiana's trucking industry is pushing for a state moratorium on new highway billboards, in part because truckers are angry over trial attorney road signs that 'demonize truckers over injury claims, in bills expected to be debated in the upcoming legislative session. The proposals, Senate Bill 211 and House Concurrent Resolution 4, are mostly being touted as a way to make highways more scenic and trim driver distractions cited in thousands of accidents.

As CEO of Louisiana's third-largest public company and a former state legislator, Sean Reilly knows how to marshal an argument, as he demonstrated when persuading a House committee last week to kill a resolution that sought to place a moratorium on new billboards.

This was an issue about which he has strong views, since his company, Lamar Advertising, with its 500 employees and $35 million payroll, is responsible for the serried ranks of billboards that line the highways.

It was mighty odd, therefore, that his first choice to testify in his support merely averred that she was real glad that Lamar maintains a billboard on her family's land in Baton Rouge. The fees covered her property taxes, she said, while that McDonald's ad was a handy landmark for her visitors.

Good for her, of course, but public policy generally requires a more compelling reason than that.

Reilly, who naturally sees the public interest as closely aligned with his own, sought to discredit the resolution as a sop to the trucking industry in its dispute with the personal-injury attorneys, who account for 17 percent of Lamar's business.

There is no doubt that truckers backed the resolution because they resent the lawyers who gaze out from billboard after billboard offering to seek colossal damages for anyone injured by a big rig. But it is an oversimplification to say the resolution was conceived purely to placate haulers. Aesthetics, for instance, are clearly a major consideration, with a spokesman for Scenic America at the committee hearing trashing billboards as “litter on a stick.” Reilly took umbrage at that, but even allowing that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, billboards will be widely regarded as a blot on the landscape. The view is not improved if Morris Bart's photo intrudes on a bucolic scene.

Proponents of the moratorium seemed convinced that Louisiana is uniquely afflicted by what state Sen. Conrad Appel, R-Metairie calls the “visual clutter” of billboards. Appel has a billboard moratorium bill pending in the senate, but its prospects do not look good now that the House resolution, filed by Jack McFarland, R-Jonesboro, has gone down by a vote of 14-3. Appel and McFarland have both averred that “that you can't go 500 feet without seeing a billboard” in Louisiana.

Reilly by no means agrees that we have more than our fair share of billboards. With two percent of the national total, and two percent of the nation's roads, we have it just about right, he assured the friendly committee. Certainly, if you leave Louisiana and drive through Mississippi and Alabama, billboard frequency does not noticeably diminish.

Since each side in a political debate seems to have its own set of facts these days, it would be unrealistic to expect any agreement on whether billboards undermine road safety. As McFarland pointed out, they cannot be deemed a success unless they distract passing motorists, so the logical assumption is that they do indeed constitute a hazard. But Reilly swears research shows that it is distraction from inside the car, not outside it, that leads to accidents.

Although the U.S. Supreme Court has recognized that commercial speech enjoys some First Amendment protection, Louisiana could ban billboards if it wanted to. Vermont, Alaska, Hawaii and Maine have already done so, and driving in those states must offer finer vistas than those endless rows of money-hungry lawyers.

Their billboards can only further encourage the strong litigious instance that helps Louisiana maintain its high ranking among the American Tort Reform Association's “judicial hellholes.”

Meanwhile, notwithstanding the impression that billboards are proliferating in Louisiana, the count is actually down in recent years, Reilly told the committee. For every two that come down only one goes up.

We still have so many that crass commercialism seriously detracts from the natural appeal of the Louisiana landscape. Advertising may help to keep the economy humming, but nobody can enjoy looking at a bunch of billboards.

Well, maybe Reilly does. They must seem as pretty as dollar signs to him.

Email James Gill at Gill1407@bellsouth.net.