The streets of Greek cities are lined with thousands of illegal advertising billboards that obstruct sidewalks and cause dozens of accidents each year, despite a law banning the ads and regular campaigns to remove them. Our Observer in Athens alerted us on this problem and sent us this account.

"If it weren't for illegal billboards, my son would still be alive today"

Our Observer spoke with Manolis Stavroulakis, the father of a 25-year-old man who died in 2005 when his car crashed into a pillar supporting an illegal billboard. Since then, Stavroulakis has joined other victims' parents in a quest to find justice and prevent future deaths.

Every year there are more and more victims. Billboards are only removed if they have caused a fatal accident - they are removed by our children's blood. The billboard that killed my son was removed after his death. Outdoor companies place signs wherever they like and mayors not only tolerate this situation, but even co-operate with the companies. It's big money.

I began investigating to find out who owned the billboard responsible for my son’s death, and found out it was a company that had closed down. We tried to sue its owner, an 80-year-old man, but were told that he was too old to be prosecuted! "

The sign was situated in the municipality of Marussi [a suburb of Athens], right across from the Olympic stadium. When I contacted the municipality, they initially told me that they hadn't authorised the billboard to be built in that location, but I found that they were lying, and succeeded in proving it. When I and other parents of billboard accident victims confronted them, they told me to stop investigating the issue and verbally threatened me. We argued, and one of the municipal officials tried to punch me. I have been struggling for five years to prove the obvious"

Manolis Stavroulakis in front of an illegal billboard site in Athens. Photo by Manolis Andriotakis.

"No sooner are some billboards removed than others magically sprout up!"

Manolis Andriotakis is our Observer in Athens. He recently directed a documentary on the safety threat posed by illegal billboards, and alerted us on the problem.

Illegal billboards are only one symptom of the much wider problem of road safety in Greece. According to Eurostat data, Greece has the second highest casualty rate due to road accidents in Europe, with more than 1.600 deaths every year [for a population of 11.2 million]. Huge advertising boards are a serious distraction for drivers; at least nine fatal accidents per year are directly linked to illegal billboards.

Crash site at the foot of an illegal Athens billboard.

The Greek law on outdoor advertising is crystal clear. Any billboard on the side of the road or on the roof of a building that distracts drivers' attention or obstructs the pavement is illegal. But the only time this very clear law was enforced in Athens was during the 2004 Olympic Games. At the time, the government supervised the removal of hundreds of illegal billboards, improving the appearance of the city's roads and making them safer. Unfortunately, just a few months after the Games, the illegal billboards reappeared...

"There are 25, 000 illegal billboards in Athens"

There are approximately 25,000 illegal billboards in Athens, and 150,000 in the whole of Greece. The previous parliament made only minimal efforts to ‘clean up' Greek roads. Many critics accused former Prime Minister Kostas Karamanlis of being unwilling to enforce the law.

Illegal billboards in Athens.

In fact, until recently, it was common practice for all parliamentary parties to use illegal billboard advertising in their political campaigns during national elections. That changed last October, with Karamanlis' crushing electoral defeat despite his massive use of illegal signs. His victorious opponent, George Papandreou, opted not to use the billboards, although he stopped short of denouncing the municipal corruption that allows these billboards to exist.

"Mayors get money under the table"

Mayors get money under the table for allowing advertising companies to build billboards on illegal locations. Meanwhile, multinational and Greek companies have no compunction about advertising on illegal billboards, thereby completing a vicious circle of illegal activity.

A "distracting" billboard. All photos by Manolis Andriotakis.

During the past ten years, activists - mainly parents of car-crash victims - have been lobbying for the State to enforce the law, impose heavy fines on all parties involved and remove all illegal billboards. Sadly, these parents appear to be fighting the Lernaean Hydra - the mythical sea-monster which replaced each of its decapitated nine heads with two more - for, no sooner does a mayor remove some billboards, than others magically sprout up!

"An iPhone App for quick and easy reporting of illegal signs"

Finally, however, the activists have succeeded in making their voices heard, and the government is announcing measures to solve the problem. First, the ministry of Infrastructure and Transportation launched a website on which citizens can report illegal billboards (www.illegalsigns.gov.gr). Secondly, with the approval of the traffic police, signs have started to be removed. The clever use of new technology may prove to be of enormous help (in July an iPhone application was created for quick and easy reporting of the illegal signs), but thousands of signs still remain to be removed. Based on past experience, there is cause for serious concern that they will reappear as soon as public interest is focused elsewhere. It is truly a Herculean task."