SACRAMENTO — The California State Assembly passed a bill Thursday by an overwhelming majority that would allow Santa Monica to install digital advertising on the sides of its buses as part of a five-year pilot program.

The bill, authored by Assemblywoman Julia Brownley (D- Santa Monica), would give the Big Blue Bus system the freedom to raise new revenues, while at the same time requiring city staff to report any problems with the program, like accidents caused by drivers distracted by the flashing signs.

If it works well in Santa Monica, the program could be extended to other cities in the state.

“Public transit agencies across the state are struggling to close transit operating budget deficits while continuing to provide vital transit service to their community,” Brownley said. “Providing them a means for securing more revenue while ensuring the safety of drivers and pedestrians makes good economic sense for local transit agencies.”

The boards would only be installed on the sidewalk-facing side of the buses, and all advertisements would freeze while buses are on the freeway so that drivers wouldn’t get distracted by flashing lights.

Companies would be able to buy ad space on the boards, which would cycle through ads every 2.7 to 10 seconds, according to the bill.

Exactly how long the ads would stay up hasn’t been determined yet, said Dan Dawson, marketing manager for BBB.

“It’s part of the planning,” Dawson said. “We have to develop a marketing plan to determine exactly that: What is an appropriate length of time that the ads can stay up to maximize revenue, and not be so fast that they’re both unreadable and distracting.”

Digital billboards have come under scrutiny over the last decade with opponents claiming that the constantly fluctuating and bright advertisements would cause accidents by distracting drivers.

Studies done to figure out whether or not that’s true have either been attacked for being funded by digital advertising companies or were declared inconclusive.

A 2009 review of existing studies by the Federal Highway Administration stated that it found “a disjointed array of isolated studies” that came to contradictory and inconclusive results.

BBB officials feel that the ads are safe, Dawson said.

“Other cities already do this, like Chicago, New York and London. We will be looking to other agencies to see their standards,” Dawson said.

Members of the Risk Management departments from Chicago and New York reported that they hadn’t seen any increase in accidents, Dawson said.

To keep risks low, the boards would not shine as brightly as the larger billboard versions that are in Los Angeles. These boards would have sensors that would cause them to shine more brightly under sunny conditions, and actually reduce their brightness in cloudy conditions to be less of a distraction.

If applied, the digital boards have the potential to increase ad revenues four-fold. Early estimates put the figure at almost $6 million, but BBB will hire a professional firm to study the matter further if the City Council chooses to allow the signs, Dawson said.

The increase in cash flow would help bridge the system’s budget deficits, and hopefully improve service. While rate decreases aren’t out of the question, Dawson pointed out that Santa Monica’s buses have the lowest fares in the region.

The City Council heard the proposal first in May 2010.

“We saw the technology at a council meeting, and it looked fairly non-intrusive and attractive,” said Councilmember Terry O’Day. “Not a bad way to raise revenue and keep fares low.”

If the bill passes the State Senate, it will still be another eight to 12 months before the digital ads begin to roll on the buses, Dawson said.

“Once the law is changed, we make the purchase, get them installed, develop a marketing plan and a price structure, it’s quite involved,” Dawson said. “The law is the first step in a long process.”

The bill passed 63 to one, and now heads for the Senate for consideration.

ashley@smdp.com