Tuesday, Sept. 4, 2007 | 7:16 a.m.
ILLUSTRATION BY CHRIS MORRIS
Perhaps the Las Vegas Strip has gotten just too bright for its own good.
Clark County officials are considering a law that could dim lights on Strip marquees and other signs that blind or dazzle motorists - once someone figures out when bright is too bright.
Critics point to a Mandalay Bay marquee that floods Interstate 15 with flashing - and some say blinding - light.
Local lighting industry officials say most Strip hotel marquees have sensors that keep their brightness in check by adjusting sign lights depending on conditions, such as changing sunlight.
Current sign settings are well below the brightness limits being considered by the county, the illumination industry says.
Clark County Planner Chuck Pulsipher said the proposed ordinance would be part of package that also could allow electronic message billboards in the county, similar to those permitted in Las Vegas and Henderson.
The county's current ordinance allows only signs that do not "illuminate with such brilliance as to blind or dazzle the vision of travelers." County officials admit they don't need an incandescent light bulb to go off in their heads to see how vague and unenforceable that measure is.
"We're looking to establish a more concrete ordinance," Pulsipher said, noting that the county has received complaints about marquees near Interstate 15 , particularly the Mandalay Bay marquee that was built without a brightness control sensor by a company that no longer is in business. "This is about getting better light pollution control," he said.
The county still is determining what the brightness standards should be, based on a measurement called "nits," - the amount of candle power emitted in 1 square meter at the source of the light. The numbers being bandied about are a maximum output of 5,000 to 6,000 nits during daylight and 2,500 to 4,000 nits at night.
Bob Klausmeier, electronics specialist for Yesco, the oldest local lighting company and which has about 70 percent of the electronic marquee market on the Strip, says most local resorts could easily meet such standards.
Klausmeier said he also is critical of harsh-light signs because they give his business a bad name.
"That sign (behind the Mandalay Bay) is a hazard," Klausmeier said. "It lacks sufficient brightness controls and does harm to our industry because people think that a high level of brightness is what we are about. But it's not. We want people to look at our signs and read the messages, not turn away because they are too distracting."
Calls to the MGM Mirage about the brightness of the signs for its 10 Strip resorts, including the marquee behind Mandalay Bay, were not returned.
Other resorts either did not return calls or, like Harrah's Entertainment, which owns 10 properties on or near the Strip, referred all questions to Yesco, which installed and maintains its marquees.
A Harrah's spokeswoman and a spokeswoman for the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority said it would not be appropriate to comment on a proposed county ordinance that has not been introduced.
Len Turner, director of show operations for the Fremont Street Experience, agrees with Yesco officials that today's electronic signs could burn much brighter than the levels at which they are currently set.
"If our display were on a vertical board , it could be quite annoying to motorists," Turner said, noting the brightness level is controlled from the canopy exhibit that allows little light to escape to nearby downtown streets to distract drivers.
He said today's LED (light-emitting diodes) technology also has better graphic definition. He said if the lights are too bright , much of that resolution would be washed out and the message would be lost on the public .
But the problem with setting legal standards, Turner said, is that not everybody measures light output in nits.
Klausmeier said for all the speculation that bright, blinking signs cause accidents , there is little or no scientific evidence to support that theory.
A study in Cleveland, he said, found no significant change in accident rates in particular areas six months before and six months after signs were installed. A 2006 AAA-commissioned study, however, found that when a driver - for any reason - takes his eyes off the road for more than two seconds, the odds more than double that he will crash.
The Federal Highway Administration has said it plans to study whether billboards with moving features, such as changing electronic messages, increase collisions.
Pulsipher said his sign brightness ordinance could come before the County Commission as early as October.
Las Vegas spokesman Jace Radke said the city's planning department is in the earliest stages of considering the drafting of a sign brightness ordinance.
Henderson has no plans to create a sign-brightness ordinance, but when the City Council approved construction of Green Valley Ranch Station Casino , its developers agreed to install a darker background on its marquee to minimize distracting light affecting residential neighborhoods and Interstate 215.
The issue of dimming sign lights is not unique to Vegas.
The Texas Transportation Commission, for instance, is considering a rule that would, among other things, ban animated or blinking lights on billboards.
In at least one place, brighter is better.
In New York, steps were taken in the early 1980s to preserve during redevelopment the brightness of signs along Times Square. The New York Municipal Art Society actually lobbied for sign brightness to be made part of an ordinance that required new buildings to have a minimum number of lighted signs.