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Highway billboards now allowed in Ontario's cottage country

Large digital signs and billboards can be seen from the Gardiner Expressway in Toronto. Last year, the Ontario Ministry of Transportation made an unpublicized change to its Corridor Signing Policy related to the placement of billboards along designated “Bush Country” highways.

Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail

Nothing spoils The Green Highway faster than a mess of billboards blocking out the scenery; and that's exactly what we've been getting more of in Ontario.

There was a time when billboards were banned from the 400-series highways. I remember when the province took this seriously and obtained court orders forcing the removal of signs that were off the highway right-of-way but still visible to drivers. Now the rules have changed and cheap little billboards are spreading like weeds in some of the most beautiful parts of the province.

Last year, the Ontario Ministry of Transportation made an unpublicized change to its Corridor Signing Policy related to the placement of billboards along designated "Bush Country" highways. The ministry considers "Bush Country" to be "north of Port Severn on Highway 400."

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Up in Bush Country, it's easy to get permits to erect eyesores on the roadside that wouldn't be allowed in other parts of the province. I tried to get provincial Transportation Minister Glen Murray to explain this but his office stonewalled and would not return my call. I was shuffled to a media liaison officer in the department, Bob Nichols, who said, "To meet the needs of businesses that use advertising to generate business, this policy change now permits billboards on freeways designated as Bush Country highways."

As a result, this spring, you weren't able to drive the 400 extension or many of the provincial highways in Muskoka, Parry Sound, Lake of Bays or Haliburton-Kawarthas without seeing crews building nasty little billboards using two by fours and plywood on the roads' edges. Ads for grinning realtors, bars, restaurants, boat dealers, furniture stores, etc., proliferate.

Roadside billboards are a form of advertising that you can't turn off. They're also a cause of distracted driving. And don't get me started on those Jumbotrons along the side of the Gardiner Expressway. These digital billboards are huge, energy-wasting, outdoor TV screens – they are there to make you watch television instead of watching the road. They should be banned immediately.

According to the California Department of Motor Vehicles, 80 per cent of crashes and 65 per cent of near crashes involve driver distraction within three seconds of the crash and the department classifies looking at billboards as a distraction.

But the billboards I'm talking about are smaller, less aggressive and litter natural landscapes instead of urban areas.

I remember the first time I drove into Vermont. As I crossed the border into this beautiful state, everything looked cleaner, greener, more pleasant and relaxing. And then it dawned on me: there were zero billboards. What an amazing difference. After a great struggle with the outdoor advertising industry, its lobbyists and lawyers, Vermont banned billboards nearly 45 years ago.

It has boosted tourism and made Vermonters more proud of their state. Three additional states – Maine, Alaska and Hawaii – have followed Vermont's lead. In the 46 other states, you're assaulted with billboards upon billboards for liquor stores, gun shops and bail bonds along with the usual retail suspects. Murray's Ministry of Transportation favours the latter approach and changed the policy for "businesses that use advertising to generate business," regardless of the mess it makes.

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Billboards have nothing to do with driver information. I have no problem with the highway logo signs that tell you where to find a hamburger, tank of gas or motel. But everything else that screams out from all the excess signage can be easily searched on a smartphone or a vehicle's navi system.

Ugly, excessive signage lining our provincial highways is spoiling Ontario's natural beauty. Hundreds of new signs have gone up in the last two years and more are being built. It's a mess and Murray has ensured that "Bush Country" residents and vacationers will be looking at it for years.

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