Roadside memorials: Public policy vs. private expression
“It seems good to mark and to remember for a little while the place where a man died.” John Steinbeck wrote those words in “The Log from the Sea of Cortez,” and, as evidenced by roadsides across the United States, people have taken them to heart.
Although the Federal Highway Administration and some states prohibit roadside memorials to those who have died in traffic accidents, they are increasingly common. The reasons for allowing them or for banning them vary as much as the memorials themselves. In fact, in probably no other area of public life does public practice diverge so dramatically from official policy.
In Nevada, for example, memorials are either “not allowed for safety reasons” or they are viewed “as a positive marker in life — a grim reminder that we all need to watch out for each other,” depending on when and whom a caller asks. The Nevada Department of Transportation prohibits roadside memorials for safety reasons, but employees recently erected a large memorial to one of their own co-workers who was killed in the line of duty. And, despite state and federal sanctions against memorials on interstate highways, Interstate 80 across Nevada claims dozens of them, including one in memory of Highway Patrol Trooper Carlos Borland, who was shot in the line of duty near Lovelock.
Across the state line, things are different. “We take them down,” says a California official. “They are an impediment that causes other people to stop and get hurt. Everything on the highway is there for an engineered purpose, so we don’t allow them.” (Still, over the years, highway landscape crews have carefully mowed around a number of crosses and other memorials on California highways.)
State and local governments prohibit roadside memorials to accident victims for a number of reasons, including safety. Wyoming’s policy states that memorials are taken down because the state DOT considers them hazardous. It cites a recent accident in which the death of a child was attributed to a driver who was distracted by a memorial to two young pedestrians killed earlier at the same site.
Supporters of the memorials argue that they represent no more of a distraction than the massive, blinking billboards common along many highways. Additionally, they argue that the memorials break up the monotony of the road, and, thus, may help prevent accidents. (Ironically, a recent safety awareness bulletin by the California Highway Patrol noted that a majority of fatigue-related accidents occur on straight roadways and involve no corrective steering or braking action by the driver. The CHP blames those accidents on “long, monotonous drives.”)
Some states prohibit the memorials because of the maintenance hassle. In Florida, for instance, the climate means heavy roadside vegetation that requires constant mowing. Memorials can hinder that mowing, although their supporters point out that the crews regularly mow around other signs and structures.
Occasionally, however, it is not just the state that objects to the memorials. In Nevada, friends of a young woman killed by a drunk driver recently erected a memorial, but the victim’s family asked the DOT to remove it. Family members said the memorial made their daily drives “almost like going to the cemetery every day.”
In Washington, requests for memorials by friends of victims require permission from the deceased’s family. Other states, such as Idaho, allow either family or friends to request an official marker.
Finally, critics question whether crosses on public land are appropriate. During conflicts in Florida over roadside memorials, the state’s plan to substitute 2-foot white, plastic markers for roadside shrines was criticized because of a constitutional concern about the separation of church and state. Those markers were replaced by the international symbol of safety, a “+” sign, which met similar controversy.
Memorial supporters acknowledge religious concerns, but feel that the use of the cross symbol as a marker of death is so practical and universal that it essentially transcends the original Christian symbolism. (The decision-makers in Florida eventually opted for a non-religious symbol. A new official marker consisting of a circle containing the words “Drive Safely” was approved.)
Washington allows memorial tree plantings and state-provided signs with the words “Please Don’t Drink and Drive” above a plaque with the message “In Memory Of” and the victim’s name. In Idaho, official policy allows simply a five-pointed gold star. The star is supposed to require a permit application and three pages of specifications, but unofficial markers are allowed, so people rarely go through the official process.
“If someone puts up a memorial to a loved one, we don’t trash it,” says Idaho DOT spokesperson Julie Pipal. “We leave it undisturbed unless it is a problem for motorists. We don’t want to put grieving friends and relatives through the authorization process, and we are more focused on building and maintaining our bridges and roadways.”
Removing unofficial markers is a sensitive issue. In Florida, crews remove and store memorials and attempt to contact family members to retrieve the memorial items or to request an official marker.
In Washington, where unauthorized markers also are removed, DOT spokesperson Lloyd Ensley says, “We try to find out who put them up and contact them to explain the reasons for removal. There is a part of the healing process that goes with this. We may even leave them up for a while.” Unofficial, non-religious memorials, he says, may be allowed to remain on highways for limited periods of time.
Nevada Highway Patrol spokesperson Janay Winkler says the markers are “a way for people to feel closure on a very tragic event.” In California, state policy calls for removal and disposal of memorials, though they may remain untouched for months to serve their purpose as a remembrance.
Permitted or not, roadside memorials have increased around the nation, and, for many highway users, they are a thoughtful and appreciated reminder of the dangers of driving and the mortality that everyone shares. “We view them as a positive marker in life, and few of us take offense or feel negatively about them,” Winkler says.
Chris Ross is a Reno, Nev.-based freelance writer.