Safety Concerns Fail to Curb Roadside Memorials

 

Flower wreaths, white crosses, weathered photographs and other roadside memorials are pitting families mourning victims of fatal traffic accidents against state highway officials who are concerned roadside shrines may distract drivers or pose other safety hazards.

But with no federal law to regulate roadside memorials, an inconsistent patchwork of state and municipal policies rule the roads. More than 42,000 people died in traffic accidents on U.S. roadways in 2002, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association.

Often spurred by "high profile" crashes that produce a crop of makeshift memorials, many states regulate these tributes in some way. This legislative session four states Alaska, Idaho, Indiana and Virginia considered measures to establish roadside memorial guidelines with differing results.

Virginia's bill to ban private memorials and establish a state-funded sign program passed the legislature, but it won't be implemented due to a battle over funding.

Conversely, Alaska's bill, which specifically allows personal memorials, passed both the state House and Senate and is awaiting approval from Republican Gov. Frank Murkowski, who is scheduled to take action on the bill June 18. A press aide told Stateline.org the governor hasn't made a final decision, but that he'll likely sign the measure into law. Victims' rights advocates contend the memorials are an "important part of the healing journey" for victims' families and friends. Many said they resent government regulation of grief and that the memorials serve as poignant reminders for drivers to take caution on the road.

"It's important for the public to see those roadside memorials because it reminds us all that people do lose their lives on the road," said Jan Blaser-Upchurch in an interview with Stateline.org. Blaser-Upchurch is vice president of victims' issues at MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving), a national advocacy group.

Some state lawmakers agree with victims' advocates.

Alaska state Rep. Jim Whitaker (R-Fairbanks) sponsored the legislation to allow memorials because he said he felt it was "an overly heavy-handed action on the part of the state to try and restrict people from expressing their grief," said Whitaker aide, Lori Backes.

Some advocates also contend that freedom of speech is violated when transportation officials remove roadside tributes.

But transportation officials counter that the memorials can interfere with road maintenance, distract drivers and be dangerous for people visiting sites near busy highways. "We respect and understand the need to memorialize victims, but it doesn't really honor their memory to have another person out on the roadway getting hurt," said Jay Remy, spokesman for the Oregon Department of Transportation, which prohibits roadside dcor that's not used to control traffic, such as political signs and balloons. This policy includes, but is not specifically aimed at roadside memorials.

Here's a sampling of roadside memorial rules across the states:

  • Colorado, Massachusetts and Wisconsin prohibit roadside memorials. 
  • West Virginia allows roadside memorials, but permits transportation officials to remove them without notice if the markers are deemed a safety hazard or interfere with regular highway maintenance. 
  • New York leaves it up to municipalities to implement rules.
  • In California, roadside memorials are allowed for victims killed in a crash involving alcohol or drugs, and victims' families must pay the state a fee of $1,000.
  • Missouri does not allow roadside memorials but encourages victims' families to participate in the state's adopt-a-highway program, which recognizes victims with a sign. The families sign a three-year agreement to clean litter from and maintain the landscape at their adopted site.
  • Texas and Florida allow only state-funded uniform memorials that can be applied for by contacting the departments of Transportation. Florida memorials are plain white, bear the victim's name and read "Drive Safely."
  • And New Mexico residents can purchase a sign from the state for $200 that will remain in place for one year. But officials also said crosses and personal markers that inevitably dot the roads are permitted "as long as they don't pose a nuisance" to highway workers.

 State highway officials and policy analysts said because the issue is chocked with emotion passing legislation is often difficult.

"Some of the states let the department of transportation handle it because legislation would just be so controversial," said Barry Hopkins, a transportation policy expert at The Council of State Governments.

For example, the Wyoming Department of Transportation issued a new policy April 15, permitting uniform signs for crash fatalities. The immediate family must request the sign in writing, and the sign will remain posted for up to five years. The rule prohibits "private memorials of any type" on state highways. Traffic safety officials across the states said the struggle to balance the needs of grieving families and roadway safety is an ongoing one.

"A lot of states are looking at this and struggling with it. They're not sure how to handle it," said Linda Thelke, spokeswoman for the Wisconsin Department of Transportation.

Debate surfaced in Wisconsin last fall when highway workers removed memorials from Interstate-43 at a large crash site where 10 people were killed, Thelke said. Department officials recently held a private meeting to begin re-evaluating the state's policy, which may be amended in the coming month. Among the things the department may consider is planting trees or flowerbeds along roadsides or erecting "In Memory Of" signs in wayside areas where they would not pose a safety threat, Thelke said.

But if Wisconsin officials do adopt policy changes they'll have to make sure they won't create "a whole lot of new work" because the budget is already tight, Thelke said. "We've got to find things that are doable, that are acceptable and that are easy to maintain and implement. We need to find ways we can be sensitive to the family and friends' needs," Thelke said.

The issue also sparked debate in Virginia after the legislature approved a bill allowing the state Department of Transportation (VDOT) to draft a policy. But the plan VDOT unveiled angered some lawmakers and victims' rights advocates because it banned private memorials along state-controlled highways and would instead use state funds to establish uniform markers, as has been done in Florida for more than a decade.

"When people see these crosses out there it gets them thinking," Virginia Delegate Bob Marshall (R-Loudoun County) told Stateline.org. Marshall, who opposed the use of state funds, said he lost his son in a fatal traffic accident and that VDOT should not be "interfering with the grieving of a family."

Due to such negative responses, the legislature revisited the issue and barred VDOT from using state money for their program, said Tamara Neale, spokeswoman for VDOT. The program would have cost the state an estimated $30,000 to $40,000 a year.

While the statute is still on the books, transportation officials said the policy is basically moot and the department isn't aggressively enforcing the rule. In the meantime, Neale said VDOT is exercising "compassionate tolerance" of the memorials.  

 
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