Calls for U-turn on 'dangerous' motorway ad screens
The Department for Infrastructure (DfI) has been criticised for dropping its long-held opposition to roadside advertising screens, which safety campaigners claim can distract drivers.
The outdoor media firm, Exterior, wants to erect seven large TV-type screens on three main routes into Belfast.
Until now, DfI has opposed advertising screens due to safety concerns.
However, a new policy paper said DfI's funding is "constrained" so it is exploring new revenue earning schemes.
Those opportunities include roadside advert opportunities on some of the busiest roads in Northern Ireland, and road safety campaigners have urged the officials at the department to reconsider.
The details are contained in the policy document, which has been released this week.
There is relatively little research into how distracting the screens are to motorists.
However, the DfI documents said: "The department has until now refused such requests on safety grounds, but is willing to consider a pilot on a trial basis where applicants have assessed the safety risks as being acceptable.
"The request also comes at a time when resource funding levels are constrained and when the departmental board is open to exploring potential income streams."
The proposed screens, which are subject to planning approval by Belfast City Council, would be placed on the north and southbound carriage ways of the M1 at Bog Meadow and the M2 Foreshore.
Two more would be located near George Best Belfast City Airport on the A2 Sydenham Bypass and another on the A12 Westlink at Grosvenor Road.
The road safety charity BRAKE said: "News that roadside advertising may be introduced in Belfast to address a funding shortfall is deeply concerning.
"A moment's glance away from the wheel can have catastrophic consequences; in one second a car travelling 50mph will cover 22m [24 yds] or around five car lengths.
"We urge this decision to be reconsidered."
'No conclusive proof'
Only a small handful of these screens have previously been allowed in Belfast - for example at Shaftsbury Square and Dublin Road in the city centre, where traffic moves slower.
The DfI document also said: "Advertisements by their very nature are designed to attract the attention of passers-by and therefore have the potential to affect road safety.
"However, there is no conclusive proof that the presence of advertisements is a contributory factor in the cause of road traffic collisions."
In the latest planning application to the council, a safety audit on behalf of Exterion identified some dangers related to the brightness of roadside screens said they "could lead to driver distraction due to glare resulting in rear end shunt, side swipe or loss of control type collisions".
The report recommended the brightness be adjusted in response to natural light changes.
One of the proposed sites is on the main carriageway towards Bangor, County Down.
Terry Malcolm, from the North Down and Ards Road Safety Committee, said: "From the point of view of road safety - anything that distracts you from driving is just crazy, even for a moment.
"At 70mph, you are travelling something in the region of 102ft [31m] per second. That's two and half bus lengths in one second. So that's how far you've travelled in a distracted second."
In a statement, a DfI spokesperson said: "The position in Northern Ireland on roadside advertising has been more restrictive than in many other countries.
"The department, as the Roads Authority, has therefore agreed in principle to facilitate a pilot project which includes LED advertisements at seven roadside sites around Belfast. The revenue from the pilot will be modest but will be used for road maintenance."
The planning application has been submitted by the developer to Belfast City Council.