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Fairfax frets over flashing signs along roads

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Local,Virginia,Transportation,Taylor Holland,Fairfax County

Fairfax County officials are taking a long, hard look at flashing, rolling and blinking electronic signs along their roads -- and they're hoping drivers won't do the same.

The County Board of Supervisors acknowledge that a local law that limits electronic signs to displaying only two messages in a 24-hour period and prohibits any animation on the signs is outdated. But they also fear that loosening the law will create distractions for motorists and cause more accidents.

Board members wrestled with a number of proposed changes to the sign rules -- ranging from allowing text to spin, flash and scroll to limiting animation to one hour at a time -- but couldn't come to a consensus.

"When you're driving and you're just constantly inundated with these signs, it starts to impact your driving," said Supervisor Cathy Hudgins, D-Hunter Mill. "Do you really want to drive down the road with 15 moving signs in front of you?"

Board Chairwoman Sharon Bulova said the county needs to loosen its limits, however.

"We should allow the copy to change more than twice a day," she said. "That's just not reasonable."

The debate stems from an August lawsuit filed by a Vienna church that was cited by the county for displaying three messages on its electronic sign within 24 hours. The church charged that the county was denying church members their First Amendment rights, including free speech and free exercise of religion.

A federal judge sided with the Church of the Good Shepherd-United Methodist and its newly erected $37,000 sign and nullified the county's two-message-per-day regulation.

Now, as the county begins to alter its ordinance, board members said they must find a change that is fair to businesses but safe for motorists. Officials weren't aware of any county-led safety studies, however, and said they did not keep track of the number of electronic signs countywide.

A 2009 Federal Highway Administration review of studies done on electronic signs along highways found only "a disjointed array of isolated studies revealing sometimes contradictory and inconclusive results."

Still, Fairfax officials fear the signs are distracting motorists during their daily commutes.

"They're awful," said Supervisor Penny Gross, D-Mason. "They're distracting to drivers ... and I get lots of complaints about them."

tholland@washingtonexaminer.com

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