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Controversy surrounds trend to place unofficial memorials on nation’s highways



By Sun Advocate

A patrol cruiser approaches from the west and a semi heads west near the site three roadside memorials mark the spot of a triple fatality accident on Oct. 10, 1974. Roadside memorials have been a familiar sight along U.S. Highway 6. But the Utah Department of Transportation fears that increased numbers could endanger not only the individuals placing the markers, but motorists who slow down or stop to view the memorials. Regulations governing highway fatality memorials are currently in place in many states, but the issue is understandably emotional and volatile at the same time.

During the last few days, a set of triple crosses have appeared near the U.S. Highway 6 and Scofield Junction. The markers are a memorial to three people who died almost 28 years ago in an accident on a wet October night.
The accident, which killed the Sunnyside residents, happened as a result of a west bound truck crossing over the center line of the road. The small car the victims were riding in smashed into the side of the truck and was crushed by the tires. One of the victims was a 16-month-old baby.
Twenty eight years later the stories of accidents aren’t much different on U.S. 6, other than that the traffic has increased dramatically. But the erection of markers, or makeshift memorials as officials call them, is a relatively new phenomenon, particularly in the numbers in which the are occurring.
Make shift memorials appear on freeways, highways and county roads in many parts of the country, but as their numbers continue to grow, the controversy over their placement, generally not approved by authorities, grows too.
Each marker tells a story, but authorities in many states believe that story is being told in the wrong place and in the wrong way.
Some highway officials across the country claim the markers create hazards. Although no official national data seems available to back up the claims, they maintain that the markers actually can become a hazard, and create accident situations, the very thing most people who erect monuments are trying to prevent.
However, supporters of the memorials point out that the markers not only help the families and friends of victims remember, but also serve as a reminder of the dangers of certain places on any highway and what can happen when people make bad decisions or don’t pay attention to what they are doing.
Locally, Utah Department of Transportation officials are concerned about the situation, but are often also hesitant to take the subject head on.
“It’s a very touchy situation, as you can well imagine,” indicates one. “These memorials are being placed in state right of ways and most are unauthorized. More importantly, however, is the possible hazard they present.”
Obviously it is hard to tell what affect such edifices have on the psyche of drivers, but in some states they are banned altogether. In others, the roads governing bodies have come up with ways to erect memorials to those who have lost their lives in a uniform way.
In some cases, the actions state and local governments have taken have resulted in more than just words and tears. It has resulted in petitions and even lawsuits.
In 1999, a young man died in a crash in North Bend, Wash., on a county road. For two years, the family maintained a small cross memorial off to the side of the road. At certain times of the year, the group of flowers and photographs surrounding the memorial grew.
Shortly after the second anniversary of the accident, a county official called the family and asked the members to remove the illegal memorial from the public right of way.
The move precipitated a petition from 70,000 people who demanded that the county allow the memorial and others like it to remain on to roadways. The battle between grieving forces and officials who are trying to uphold the law and the integrity of the roadways continues there and in other places.
Washington actually has had a memorial program since 1994, but the official signs are not put at accident sights except in cases where alcohol related fatalities have occurred.
The fact is that many memorials that are placed by families and friends come down after a short period of time.
The most common memorials consist of small wooden crosses, which eventually decay or are knocked down by natural forces such as wind or snow, or are run over by vehicles. That, in combination with the closure people eventually feel toward a situation, leads to the markers disappearing due to lack of maintenance.
But a good many markers are being maintained, improved and enlarged.
One Utah official relates that, in a particularly bad accident where a little boy was run over one night after the car he was riding in broke down on U.S. 6, a memorial was erected by painting a rock on the side of the road with his name and some other information. The original memorial didn’t distract anyone.
But one day, officials noticed that a steel rack had been built and the rock placed on the top of it. People were slowing down to look at the memorial and a number of near accidents occurred at the site. Officials felt they had to remove the memorial before someone was hurt.
But the memorial issue also goes beyond safety or maintenance matters.
In some cases, the markers are becoming a constitutional issue. That’s because so many of memorials, erected on public right of ways, denote a Christian point of view.
Crosses, which the vast majority of the memorials are based upon, are considered a Christian symbol and, therefore, denominational.
A law allowing memorials that was being debated in the Oregon Legislature was stopped due to the fact that opponents pointed out that, if Christian symbols were allowed along roadways, what was there to stop swastikas and Klu Klux Klan symbols from being erected too.
In Texas, the state’s lawmakers decided to leave up only the memorials placed at scenes where fatal mishaps involved alcohol. The decision was based mainly on the fact Texas officials were having a campaign against drunk driving. But the Texans who had lost loved ones in accidents that did not involve drinking felt that the move was discriminatory.
While such make shift memorials are technically illegal in most states, officials are not often in any hurry to take them down. Unless they are ruled unsafe, they just let them go until they disappear or have to remove them for maintenance reasons.
But some states have come up with ways to solve the sticky situation.
The West Virginia Legislature passed a bill in 2000 that allows for makeshift memorials, but with numerous strings attached.
In fact, the regulations require a permit for placement that has to be filed with the state.
Memorials are limited by the West Virginia law in terms of size, placement, position and type. The actual public information pamphlet on the subject is five pages long.
In Montana, the American Legion has been putting up crosses along the highway where fatal crashes have occurred for years. The organization’s agreement with the state of Montana has been basically informal.
But in the present age of political correctness, the circumstances in Montana could change, just as the situation has in Florida.
Florida’s department of transportation, tired of fighting the many kinds and placement of memorials , decided to replace all makeshift edifices and any added ones with a small crosses resembling the Red Cross emblem.
However, Jewish groups in Sunshine State brought up the fact that the idea was insensitive to non-Christians and urged the state to use either something that was non-sectarian or be ready to take requests from many faiths for different kinds of symbols.
Officials in the Sunshine State also faced a lawsuit regarding the same issue.
Florida finally came up with a marker that was non-denominational . The marker urges motorists to “Drive Safely.”
Different states have resolved the issue with various kinds of actions. For example:
•Alaska used to charge $500 to put up an official memorial sign that said “Please Drive Safely.”
However, Alaska discontinued the charge for the service in January 2002.
•Colorado started a memorial sign program in 1997, but only for accidents in which someone was convicted of an offense that included driving under the influence on an intoxicant.
The Colorado markers are mounted on a post, like a regulatory sign.
The Colorado marker consists of a “Don’t Drink and Drive” advisory on top of a smaller sign that states: “In Memory Of….”
•Oregon finally came up with a law that allowed memorials, but the markers are restricted to “impaired driving crashes.”
The memorials must also meet other designated criteria.
Oregon charges $500 for the service.
•South Dakota installs signs that encourage motorists to “Think!” at the site of fatal accidents.
The program started on Jan. 1, 1979 and was adopted in response to the problem of drunk driving across South Dakota.
Many other states are working on or are in the process of adopting such programs. A year ago Utah even examined having a program for standard memorials.
“We had a discussion and did some research with families who had lost loved ones on highways state wide,” points out Myron Lee UDOT public information director for region 4. “It was a complicated issue, but when it came right down to it, most of the families involved felt that if the memorials caused dangerous situations for others, they didn’t want to do it.”
Lee reminds Carbon County residents, however, that UDOT has implemented other ways allowing people to take part and remember victims who have lost their lives in traffic accidents.
One is the adopt a highway program. In addition, UDOT has no objections when people want to set up memorials at rest areas.
“Placing stuff by the side of a busy highway is dangerous,” emphasizes Lee. “And just as dangerous is stopping to look at it, which is the biggest reason we are concerned about this problem.”
No national data is available on accidents that may be connected with road side memorials. But a mishap did take place near Jordanelle Reservoir on Highway 40 in Wasatch County last summer.
The Wasatch County accident involved an individual who was struck by a vehicle while viewing a memoria. It was not a fatal mishap, but the incident confirms the problems that can arise.
Due to the public safety concerns, UDOT has made the decision to remove makeshift memorials right after the 2002 Memorial Day weekend.
“On Tuesday, we will be removing any memorials put up over the holiday,” indicates Lee. “We totally understand that people need to grieve, but we also have to be concerned about the safety of the road after the holiday.
“We just don’t want anyone to get hurt or killed in the process of looking at or stopping for these memorials,” concludes the UDOT representative.

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