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LED Billboards Threaten Safety and Public Space, Say Critics

More than mere annoyances, these big signs may have big implications for the future of outdoor advertising in Toronto.

This section of the Gardiner Expressway, known as "Billboard Alley," may soon be home to three new LED billboards. Photo by {a href=””}IanMuttoo{/a} from the {a href=””}Torontoist Flickr Pool{/a}.

If invasive roadside advertising has you driven to distraction, public space activist Dave Meslin would like to remind you that you have a voice, and on December 14, a chance to use it. On that date the City will be hosting a public consultation, where Torontonians will have the opportunity to discuss a proposal put forth by Allvision to install 17 LED billboard signs at 10 locations across the city.

Blair Murdoch, president of Allvision Canada, hopes to secure several amendments to Chapter 694 of the City of Toronto Municipal Code, which covers third-party ground signs. He made his request earlier this year on behalf of CN Rail, the company that owns the land on which Allvision wants to erect the massive billboards.

A staff report released by the City on September 21 indicates that the 10 LED billboards (seven of which have two sign faces) will replace 10 standard paste-and-paper billboards along CN Rail corridors. Acceptance of Allvision’s proposal is contingent on the permanent removal of 30 additional billboards.

The staff report notes that “Toronto has more third party signs per capita than any other Ontario municipality” and claims that council’s goal is to “reduce the total [number] of third party signs currently erected and displayed within the City.”

Although the proposed elimination of 40 signs achieves that goal, its effect on the amount of advertising space taken up by third-party signs is negligible. The total area of advertising space occupied by the 40 signs slated either for removal or replacement is 780 square metres, while the proposed LED billboards total 738 square metres of signage. The difference of 42 square metres is roughly equivalent to the total area of just two paste-and-paper billboards.

Meslin argues that this small sacrifice of advertising surface area is more than offset by the superior effectiveness of LED billboards. He adds that “effective and intrusive are one and the same in advertising.” According to Meslin, that intrusiveness will be especially evident at night. “The light [from the signs] is strong enough that if it’s coming through a window it would disrupt your sleep,” he says. He notes that several of the signs will be erected in clear view of residential areas.

LED billboards—such as these at Yonge-Dundas Square—are bright enough to interfere with sleep patterns when erected in residential areas. Photo by {a href=””}~EvidencE~{/a} from the {a href=””}Torontoist Flickr Pool{/a}.

“They’re (Allvision and the City) misleading the public in saying this is a reduction in advertising. It’s an enormous growth.”

Meslin, who is a member of the Toronto Public Space Initiative (TPSI) advisory board, says the proliferation of outdoor advertising in recent years has cheapened the city. Although the proposed LED billboards are to be built on private land, he says they nonetheless constitute an improper use of public space.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s on public or private land; it’s about who it’s affecting,” Meslin says. “I don’t care where their sign is. If it’s affecting the public space then it’s a public issue.”

In addition to impinging upon the public space, Meslin says the billboards raise serious safety concerns for drivers.

One of the billboards, to be located on Leslie Street near Highway 401, is in close proximity to North York General Hospital. “I think that’s a really good idea in terms of placement, because I think these things are going to cause accidents,” says Meslin, sarcastically. “You might as well put one close to a hospital.”

Citing a statistic from the California Department of Motor Vehicles, Meslin states that 80 per cent of car accidents are caused by distracted drivers. By entertaining a proposal to erect additional sources of distraction on busy streets and highways, he says the City is putting drivers at risk.

“It’s not rocket science,” Meslin says. “We’ve already banned cellphones in cars. You’re not allowed to watch your own personal TV screens in cars. So why would we install electronic signs on the highway? It’s just a bad idea.”

In defence of Allvision’s proposal, Murdoch cites a study conducted by the United States Department of Transportation, which asserts that “the states of Nevada, Utah, Texas, New York, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts reported no evidence of increased traffic safety problems after the installation of electronic information displays in their city centers and along their highways.”

It is worth noting that several U.S. cities—including six in Texas—have banned LED billboards due in part to the potential safety hazards they present to drivers.

Murdoch also quotes a study by Tantala Associates, which claims that “digital billboards [...] have no statistically significant relationship with the occurrence of accidents.” Murdoch’s emailed response to Torontoist does not mention that the study was commissioned by the Foundation for Outdoor Advertising Research and Education, a non-profit organization affiliated with the Outdoor Advertising Association of America.

Photo by {a href=""}chromewaves{/a} from the {a href=""}Torontoist Flickr Pool{/a}.

While Murdoch refuses to concede or deny that LED billboards are a distraction to drivers, Meslin says it is clear that attracting attention is their sole purpose. “Obviously they’re going to distract [drivers],” he says, “because that’s what they’re supposed to do.”

On October 6, the City’s Planning and Growth Management Committee voted to defer consideration of Murdoch’s proposal to January 5, explaining the deferral would “allow consultation to take place with the City Planning division, affected communities, and stakeholders, in cooperation with local councillors.”

But according to Meslin, residents of affected communities have not been properly informed of the public consultation scheduled for December 14. “I don’t think that the people who are going to be affected by these signs have any clue this is happening,” he says. “I think it’s a total scam.”

In an email, Robert Bader of the City’s Sign By-Law Unit notes that an advertisement published in print editions of the Toronto Star informs the public of the consultation. Yet the advertisement fails to mention the locations where the LED billboards are to be erected–essential information that can only be ascertained by typing out and following a 68-character URL printed along with the advertisement ( The URL leads to a webpage containing a list of eight hyperlinks. The first of these hyperlinks, titled “Report from the Chief Building Official and Executive Director, Toronto Building on Amendments to Chapter 694 of the City of Toronto Municipal Code Respecting a Comprehensive Consolidation and Upgrade Program for Third Party Ground Signs Located on Certain Rail Lands within the City of Toronto,” leads to a PDF file. On the fifth page of that file, the locations of the proposed LED billboards are listed.

That such basic information about the issue can only be arrived at by following an absurdly circuitous route will likely discourage many from participating in the consultation. Meslin believes this is by design. “There definitely is a culture at City Hall of doing things without consultation,” he says. Still, Meslin plans to attend the event, noting the importance of combating the commercialization of public spaces.

“When we see all these corporate brands in our [public] space, I think we can easily forget something: this is our city.”

Proposed LED billboard locations:

  • Kipling Avenue near Belfield Road
  • Lawrence Avenue West near Weston Road
  • York Mills Road near Leslie Street
  • Leslie Street near Highway 401
  • Victoria Park Avenue near Gerrard Street East
  • Eglinton Avenue East near Bellamy Road North
  • Steeles Avenue West near Alness Street
  • Gardiner Expressway (three billboards within 425 metres of Atlantic Avenue)

The public consultation on Allvision’s LED billboard proposal takes place tomorrow (December 14) from 6:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. at City Hall (100 Queen Street West) in Committee Room #1 on the second floor.


  • Anonymous

    “Meslin states that 80 per cent of car accidents are caused by distracted drivers”


    Meslin: Blah, blah blah [citation needed]. Blah, blah, blah [citation needed]. Blah, blah, blah [citation needed]

    ZOMG FUD!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • Anonymous

    These screens (and normal billboards) are design to grab drivers’ attention, which means they will be paying less attention to the road. The province bans billboards alongside 400-sereis highways for that very reason.

    • Anonymous

      If a driver is distracted because of a neon sign that says “Restaurant” should we ban all neon signs?

      I say it’s as good way to filter people out, who probably shouldn’t have a drivers license in the first place.

      • Anonymous

        You don’t get signs with “restaurant” next to the Gardiner (which has a 100km/hr speed limit), and these signs are designed to be much mroe intrusive/attention-grabbing than a small neon sign.

        I’m glad you don’t get distracted by anything while driving. Hopefully you won’t get hit and injured by all the drivers who do get distracted.

        • Anonymous

          People who are easily distracted, will by virtue be easily distracted in both scenarios. As such, I’d say that size/speed is irrelevant.

          • qviri

            Would you like to speculate on Ontario governments’ basis for continuing refusal to allow billboards near provincially-maintained freeways? Said governments included such anti-business, pro-”public space” luminaries as Mike Harris.

          • Anonymous
      • qviri

        As much as I would like this to happen (would also be of great help with all the traffic problems!), do you actually figure it’s feasible in Ontario and GTA to revoke drivers’ licenses for people who are distracted by flashing lights?

        • Anonymous

          I would assume a distraction wouldn’t be enough. I’m also assuming the distraction is supposed to invoke FUD into the idea of accidents.

          So yes, it’s pretty feasible, because it would go hand in hand with an accident report.

          • qviri

            Great! When can we expect you to start advocating for this?

          • Anonymous

            Huh? Sorry, my point is now invalid as I’m not starting a campaign about it?

            How craptastic of you.

          • qviri

            Perhaps you could point me to where I said your point is invalid?

          • Anonymous

            What are you asking then? Why is it important that I advocate? Please darling, it’s pee, not rain. Keep it real.

          • qviri

            Just wondering, darling. You certainly seem passionate enough about billboards and driver safety, I thought it made sense.

          • Anonymous

            I’m just sick of people not owning up to their own stupidity.

            “ZOMG the SIGN made me do it… it’s EVIIIILLLL”

            Equally sick of people like Meslin who feel the need to fill in the blanks on “data” I guess, the hope is that nobody actually reads any of it.

            If he was honest and just said he hates billboards and that’s why he wants them gone, I’d respect that. But this constant – coming up with x reasons why y shouldn’t happen – merely due to personal opinion, is anti-social and anti-community.

    • Anonymous

      “These screens (and normal billboards) are design to grab drivers’ attention”

      Or the passengers attention :P

      • Anonymous


  • concerned

    I totally agree. Electronic billboards distract drivers when they should be paying attention to the road. No matter how hard you try to ignore them, the flickers of light are distracting. They are also a drain on electricity.

    • Anonymous

      It’s worse than that. Your brain has a hard-wired instinct to look at flickering lights. No matter how good a driver you are, you can no more over-rule that reaction than bleeding when sliced open.

      • Anonymous

        citation needed.

        • Canuck

          See any psychology textbook ever written. Our attention is captured by sudden changes in the environment – lights, movement, sound, etc. This was evolutionarily adaptive because sudden changes could mean incoming predators.

          • Anonymous

            Speak for yourself. I’m pretty sure I’m more aware of myself then a generalized psych text. We’re not dogs…

          • Anonymous

            So you’re brain visual processing section is wired differently to every single otehr human? Wow!!!

          • Anonymous

            Unless you can provide a citation stating that blinking lights turn is into pavlovian dogs? Then the answer is yes. Otherwise, your anecdote is pure BS.

            Also this: “by sudden changes in the environment” is hyperbole. Remove “sudden” and the statement is very different. Because there are tonnes of lights, movement, sound etc everywhere in the city and rarely is it “sudden”

  • TPSI

    Please see this link for more information and evidence behind assertions that these billboards are dangerous to traffic safety, including statistical studies, controlled laboratory studies, and a meta-study looking at ALL studies done on this topic. Most studies suggesting otherwise have been funded by the outdoor advertising industry.

    publicspaces dot ca slash LED

    • Anonymous

      None of these reports (as far as I can see) relate LED signs as a distraction. They are distractions in general. So cell phone, screaming kids, argument with spouse, etc etc. So it’s a bit of a stretch to compare those things IMHO.

      • Anonymous

        They made driving while on the phone illegal for a reason.

        • Anonymous

          Cause when I”m looking at a billboard I’m solely involved in a conversation with, I also reach out with my hands and touch it?

          • Anonymous

            Anything that takes the driver’s eyes off the road – whether it’s down to their palm to see the dial pad or up to the sky to read about how the new Honda will improve their lives – is a distraction. Hands-free car phones were invented specifically so the driver can make/take calls without having to look away from the road.

            Good golly you’re thick.

          • Anonymous

            No need to get all insulting…

            You’re talking about almost anything in the environment (take a look at the California DMV document posted). The moon, sun, stars, flashing lights, billboards, a simple conversation with a passenger, changing the radio station, etc etc.

            Ban all those things too? We should just ride around in one seater cars, headrests that iron maiden your head to the road and call it a day?

            PEOPLE make choices to do what they do.

            “Hands-free car phones were invented specifically so the driver can make/take calls without having to look away from the road.”

            and yet, people still get into accidents WITH a handsfree setup. This is why the police suggest you pull over :P

      • Graeme Bayliss

        The California DMV specifically cites billboards (including, presumably, the LED variety) as a source of distraction. There is a link in the article, but I’ll post the quote here: “Looking out your window at what you are passing while you are driving can be a distraction if you are concentrating on getting a good look at [...] a billboard advertisement.”

        • Anonymous

          [citation needed]

          The DMV says it needs to look further into it. It’s a suspicion not a fact.

          • Guest

            Accidents are accidental, people are being pulled over most likely for safety reasons, construction can be to make roads safer or more efficient, looking for an address is generally the conclusion to driving and unavoidable and scenic views are part of earth. Advertisements can be saved for television (or magazines, or subways, or buses, or any of the thousands of other places people advertise, etc) when we sit on our bums, not when we drive massive heavy pieces of machinery down roads at 100 km/hr.

            Not saying that people don’t need to take responsibility for their driving, because they do. But why not get rid of things DESIGNED to distract you from driving? Why is that not worth it?

          • Anonymous

            “scenic views are part of earth”

            I see the point went right over your head. Scenic views are part of “earth”? Cause the CN tower and skydome are part of “earth”?

            Point is, while driving 100k an hour down a busy freeway, maybe staring at the skydome isn’t a good idea. Billboards are no different.

            “But why not get rid of things DESIGNED to distract you from driving?”

            Now we’re full circle to my previous point.

            “Why is that not worth it?”

            Because we don’t need to make everything illegal to protect people from their own stupidity.

          • Guest

            Scenic views as in sunsets were what I was referring to, but clearly you need me to make a distinction. Last I checked the CN tower didn’t land here from Mars, so yes. It is a part of Earth. It may not have GROWN but it is part of the unavoidable environment.

            Do you work for a billboard company?

          • Anonymous

            If the CN tower and the skydome are “part of earth” than so are billboards. You can’t have it BOTH ways, so which is it?

            ANNND… Of course, our difference in opinion MUST mean that I work for a billboard company – obtuse much?

          • Graeme Bayliss

            The CN Tower was completed in 1976, the SkyDome in 1989. They are important tourist attractions and symbols of the city. They have been for decades.

            The LED billboards have not been built, and therefore are not a part of the “unavoidable environment” that “Guest” alludes to, as they do not even exist yet. Moreover, LED billboards do not symbolize the City of Toronto, nor are they tourist attractions, nor architectural marvels, nor defining elements of the skyline.

            Of course, you’re already aware of the obvious differences between world-famous landmarks and as-yet-unbuilt billboards that render your argument impotent.

            Or maybe those points went right over your head. Or maybe you’re just being obtuse.

          • Anonymous

            You’re completely missing the point of the whole “distraction” thing.

  • Patrick Smyth

    “There definitely is a culture at City Hall of doing things without consultation,”

    There’s a culture on Council that allowed Karen Stintz to do Riocan a big favour by promoting the loss of publicly accessible open space at Yonge/Eglinton. In a Sun poll at the time, 79% of respondents wanted Council to retain the open space. The majority of participants at every “community consultation” meeting wanted Council to retain the open space, There is ample evidence to support the belief that “consultations” are simply an obstacle that can easily be overcome with the right amount of flip-flopping and bare-faced lies. David Miller and the New Development Party on Council accepted Karen Stintz’s vote for Transit City and in return they gave/swopped their votes to close-in the open space at YE. It’s a farce down there and fighting each issue (like the above) is only allowing the farce to continue. The heart of the matter is the level of integrity employed by Council and Ward Councillors.

  • JoeFresh

    Keep them off the Gardiner, there is sometimes a Bell ad which has a white background near the 427. I can see a green outline of the sign after looking away. NOT SAFE!!!

  • Anonymous

    Aside from distraction, there’s also the issue of light pollution. Can someone explain why every building downtown seems to need rooftop searchlights?

    • Anonymous

      Air safety. Hate it? Move to Orangeville

      • Anonymous

        Really?! Air safety? Not ‘Hey, come and check out our awesome nightclub/event’?

        • Anonymous

          Because every building downtown is a nightclub? I’m speaking to the majority, if you meant to say something else, than clarification is needed.

          Can you point out the nightclubs with spotlights on their rooftops?

          • Anonymous

            It’s not every building downtown that has them, but certainly the ones seeking some kind of attention or prominence – including, but not limited to, nightclubs – often seem to have searchlights sweeping back and forth. Also facilities such as the ACC.

            They do virtually nothing for aviation safety, by the way.


            Although they are a handy way of saying ‘Don’t fly over here’:


          • Anonymous

            So a couple than. Cool. Kill the exceptions!

            And even worse…. the moon. We need to blow that thing up.

          • Anonymous

            So a couple than [sic].

            Okay, you made your point. Not every single building. But a lot of them, and a lot of frankly pointless light pollution. Something the moon is not.

            Is that your main source of amusement – pointing out others’ exaggerations while indulging in your own?

          • Anonymous

            not at all. Just illustrating how ridiculous you sound.

            “But a lot of them”

            I count about 5.

            “pointless light pollution”

            Does light pollution have to have a “point”? What’s the point of the CN tower lights?

            You don’t think the spotlights at the ACC are kinda cool and add to the skyline? Personally I do. But then I’m not advocating to turn a mega city such as Toronto into Lorette, Manitoba.

          • Anonymous

            Regardless of how many or how few buildings, it’s very noticeable.

            Light pollution doesn’t have a purpose – it’s a consequence of a particular use of illumination. Is there a point to making it harder to see stars at night? Sure, the CN Tower looks cool (and is a lot more visible and is safer for it). The ACC, enh, I guess.

            But the buildings with searchlights are visible at a distance where it no longer makes them distinctive – they just become beams and circles against the clouds.

            We can have some purely decorative illumination without the downtown sky being a mess of beams and while still remaining a vibrant megacity. Having less of it doesn’t automatically make us a small town.

          • Anonymous

            We obviously have a very different definition of what excessive is.

            That’s what makes living in a city this size so great, all the differences of opinion :)

  • Thomasta1234


  • ChaosOverkill

    Your Oligarchs in pocket at work. City is getting ugly enough as it with the Condos.