Third digital ad screen on M32 ‘too distracting for drivers’ rule council planners

A plan to put up a third huge digital advertising screen by the side of the M32 has been rejected by council planners because it would distract drivers too much. Bristol City Council has refused a planning application by a London-based property company to put up the screen, overlooking the motorway in St Werburghs.

The application had almost 100 objections from local residents and campaigners against the proliferation of advertising in Bristol, but it was road safety that council planners gave as the reason it should be thrown out.

Opinion: Why digital advertising billboards on M32 need taking down

The M32 is managed by National Highways, and it offered no objection to the plans for a 6m x 3m screen, located on a small area of grass outside the front of Dainton Self-Storage on New Gatton Road, on the St Werburghs side of the motorway.

But Bristol City Council’s transport department did object, saying that because the screen would face drivers coming into the city centre and would suddenly appear as they passed under the railway bridge on the approach to junction 3 for Easton and St Pauls, it would be too distracting at a spot where drivers are changing lanes and manoeuvering to use the junction.

The council’s transport development manager told planners. “Whilst this sign would predominantly face the M32, which is currently in the jurisdiction of Highways England, BCC as the Highway Authority have objections to this proposal, not least because the impact of a collision on the motorway would have a significant impact on the operation of the surrounding road network. The proposed siting of an illuminated advertising sign at this location is unacceptable given the need for drivers to undertake lane changes and absorb information from the overhead directional signing.

“The effect of this advertisement would be that it would take drivers’ attention away from the road at this crucial point whilst negotiating lanes of fast-moving weaving traffic. Furthermore, the positioning of the sign would also mean that it is not fully visible from a distance,” they added.

A mass objection to the proposed screen was led by campaign group Adblock Bristol, which has called for the council to order the removal of the two existing digital ad screens on the M32 in Easton.

But the council’s transport chief said the reason this proposed third one should be rejected could not be applied to those two – because the road conditions were different on that section of the M32.

“The two signs which have been permitted along this stretch of road are visible in a straight line from a distance, allowing drivers to absorb the message over time, thus reducing the demand on drivers’ concentration,” they said. “The advertising proposal in question would not be visible from a distance and would only appear for in the drivers’ vision for a brief period, this would oblige the driver to either assimilate or dismiss the advertising information quickly. The cognitive function of this action would be a significant distraction from the movements and merging on this stretch of highway,

A third digital advert screen is proposed here, next to the M32 in St Werburghs. It would be positioned on the second grassed area at the entrance to Dainton Self-Storage, facing up the M32 towards the railway bridge
A third digital advert screen is proposed here, next to the M32 in St Werburghs. It would be positioned on the second grassed area at the entrance to Dainton Self-Storage, facing up the M32 towards the railway bridge
(Image: Google Maps)

“Once the sign is viewable, it would quickly become outside of the drivers’ cone of vision whilst travelling forward. This would require drivers to turn their heads away from the carriageway ahead in order to view the advertisement, thereby distracting them from vehicles changing lanes at this point presenting a significant road safety risk,” they said, adding that having a distracting digital ad board appear from under the bridge could lead to more collisions where one driver goes into the back of another.

“There is often congestion and the potential for nose to tail accidents at this location. Whilst it is noted that the rate of collisions is low within the 100m indicated in the application package, there have been a number of nose-to tail accidents recorded along this particular stretch of road, which indicates driver error arising from the relatively challenging nature of this part of the highway. The addition of cognitive demand associated with this particular advertising sign at this particular location is likely to further contribute to driver error,” they added.

Council planners refused permission, telling Ardent Land, the company proposing it that the screen would ‘create an unnecessary distraction to road users in an area containing complex high speed manoeuvres and high traffic volumes’.

Barney Smith, from Adblock Bristol, said the council were forced to act because of the 98 objections from local residents and campaigners.

“This is a win for Bristol and we are delighted that this digital billboard has been rejected,” he said. “No one wants new billboards apart from the agencies who make money from them – Adblock Bristol has now helped to block 40 of these giant screens since our campaign started five years ago, and we will continue to work with local residents for a happier, healthier city by keeping new adverts out.”

Charlotte Gage, who lives in Easton and volunteers with Adblock Bristol, added: “This refusal is another big sign back to the advertisers that these digital screens aren’t wanted in Bristol. One of the issues with advertising screens is that neighbours aren’t notified about a new application even though it will have a huge impact on their lives. That’s where Adblock comes in – we let people know and every time we see a massive number of objections.”

The group said it is continuing with its campaign to remove two existing digital billboards that overlook the M32 in Easton. More than 2,300 people have signed a petition to take down the M32 screens, with Adblock aiming to reach 3,500 signatures to trigger a council debate over their removal.

The M32 digital advertising screens
The M32 digital advertising screens
(Image: Adblock Bristol)

Campaigners need another 1,200 signatures to force the issue to be debated by the council, but when it was put to mayor Marvin Rees at his regular press conferences last year, he indicated it wasn’t a priority for him.

Mr Rees, dismissed their calls , saying he hasn’t ‘had much time agonising over the billboards on the M32′, after listing all the other things he said were more important.

Asked how he felt about the billboards at a press briefing the day after the petition was presented in December, Mr Rees , said: “I appreciate people have got the time to do that and we recognise there’s a challenge with advertising. I just went through a whole list of city challenges we face right now: £23million in the budget needed to be found, adult social care crisis, concerns over child safety, on top of a worsening housing crisis, the climate and ecological emergencies, trying to get people back onto public transport, congestion problems in the city.

“To be perfectly [frank], I really haven’t had much time agonising over the billboards on the M32,” he added.

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