Are drivers distracted by outdoor signposting?: Interview with Paul Murrell on recent ARRB research

Interview of Paul Murrell on “Is outdoor advertising a distraction to drivers?” with David Brown

DB: The Australian Road Research Board has just done some research on whether outdoor advertising distracts drivers. Their press release has the heading “outdoor ads can improve driver performance”.

DB: The important point is that from a technical point of view it was a measurement of only two locations, both similar traffic lights I believe in inner-city areas. They only measured two things which were whether people went across the stop line or didn’t stop fully and went partially across the stop line or whether they wandered in the lane. They then measured it for a while and then they put up some advertising. My point is that that is a very limited number of situations and measurements. And so what might have worked in that situation might have nothing to do with, to my mind, 110 kilometres an hour on a country road.

PM: said “I think you’re exactly correct. I think it’s very dangerous to base conclusions like these on limited data. I mean the ordinary possibilities of statistical error start to come into play here. There are only two locations, they’re only testing really two reactions to a distraction. I just question the whole methodology to be honest.

DB: They linked to the press release and a summary but they did not put the full report on the internet.

DB: ARRB did say “can” improve drive distraction. But the summary, the technical background was, I believe, written by the client who is the Outdoor Media Association and while they do have the general heading to this information leaflet “can outdoor advertising make roads safer” they have a subheading in there that says “Research shows outdoor advertising helps”.

PM: Yeah.

DB: They do have an interesting point that sometimes that advertising can be road safety and so that might flag a memory of a road safety issue and the other point they make is that a lot of distraction is within the car. People either texting or children interrupting them and something to get your eyes up and on the road may have a direction there but my big point still goes down too, we have not looked at that across the board. Now Paul you’ve been in marketing and advertising, not all outside ads are equal in terms of their distraction, are they?

PM: Oh of course they’re not. And not all outdoor advertising is distracting to all people. I mean you and I, for example, may be well distracted by a very attractive woman on a billboard whereas my wife wouldn’t look twice at it. She’d probably be looking at the Fashion poster across the road.

PM: I have to question what is what’s the motivation behind this research? Why are they doing this research? What’s their long-term goal in doing research about outdoor advertising not being distracting? I can only assume it’s justified the fact that outdoor advertising should be allowed along freeways or next to roads. I can’t think of any other reason why they would do research to say that advertising isn’t distracting. Therefore, there’s a whole element of self-interest here or self-justification. I find the whole thing a little strange.

DB: I think we have to be very careful given the media will read a headline and run with that.

PM: As we know of course you and I depend on if people read headlines and never read the text reading. It’s amazing what you can get away with a clever headline. But it goes back to my point. What is the fundamental purpose of doing this research unless it is to convince people that yes it’s quite okay to have lots of signs up all around our roads?

DB: Paul lovely to talk to as always thank you very much for your time.

PM: Thank you, David.


Paul Murrell is a motoring journalist and writer who previously worked in the advertising industry. His web site is

The full interview is on the audio file.


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