Monday, May 7, 2001

When motorists cruise past a makeshift cross by the roadside, they may see a tribute to a young life cut short or a grave reminder of the dangers of speeding. When highway officials drive past, they see another accident waiting to happen.
Crash-site memorial markers along highways, byways and side roads have become common over the past 10 to 20 years.
All too often, however, families and friends looking to memorialize a tragedy are at odds with local and state governments seeking to keep roadways free of distractions and safety hazards.
These impromptu memorials can be dangerous to set up, officials say, and anyone who stops to pay tribute or lay flowers could be hit by a car. Pieces of wire and wood tend to end up in the road.
In Idaho, the state transportation department authorizes only its own memorial gold stars. Texas allows markers with some restrictions. California bans them altogether.
Two months ago, a Livonia, Mich., inspector worked out a compromise with a family to reduce a large memorial — one that included a guitar and electronic keyboard — to a candle and stuffed bear.
Virginia and Maryland highway officials tolerate the markers — but they try to discourage the practice.
“The main thing were thinking about is safety. We wouldnt want another accident caused by a memorial,” said Valerie Edgar, a spokeswoman for the Maryland State Highway Administration.
Markers are usually crosses, hand-constructed from piping or pieces of wood or manufactured from plastic or metal. Sometimes ribbons are tied to posts or graffiti messages are painted on bridges.
Most markers are temporary. Some remain, and are regularly tended by relatives who add notes, drop off flowers or decorate their memorials with Christmas decorations.
Most commemorate a drunken-driving death or speeding accident, as is the case with numerous markers along Route 202 in Prince Georges County.
At the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center near Bowie, three crosses presumably pay tribute to the three young women shot and left for dead at the site in 1996.
“Theres one across the street from us now,” said Andrew Cole, funeral director at Collins Funeral Home in Silver Spring. Teddy bears are stapled to a pole, along with a large glossy photo of a young girl, he said.
“I see it every day I come to work,” Mr. Cole said.
Its not clear when and where the marker custom began, though roadside memorials appear in Greece, Egypt, Australia and the Yucatan, said ChrisTina Leimer, who wrote “The Tombstone Travellers Guide.”
In Mexican culture, shrines marked the places where pallbearers stopped to rest, known as descansos. The Irish government erects signs reading: “Traffic Black Spot.”
In the United States, “Maybe thats just the way the younger generation likes to grieve,” Mr. Cole said, adding that flowers sometimes are taken from grave sites and moved to roadside memorials.
Bob Evans, funeral director at Evans Funeral Home in Bowie, calls the memorials “visible” reminders.
The Internet is filled with collections of photographs and log entries from those who treat these markers as works of art. As with almost any fad, there are those who make money off the idea.
A Web site called sells 2-foot manufactured crosses starting at $24.99.
“Symbolizing the passage of a loved one, it represents their final earthly location and offers a cautionary reminder for all those who see it,” the Web site states.
“An alternative to the often short-lived, homemade crosses that youve seen along the roads, streets and highways, our product truly reflects the significance of this lost life,” it goes on to say.
A disclaimer on the Web site instructs buyers to consult local and state ordinances first.
In Virginia, officials treat the memorials on a case-by-case basis, usually leaving crosses or bunches of flowers until they start to deteriorate.
Two years ago, a Virginia General Assembly committee tabled two bills that would have allowed police to arrest those building memorials and charge them with misdemeanors.
“Basically it leaves the department to do what we do now, try to make the best decisions we can,” said Lynwood Butner, a Virginia Department of Transportation traffic engineer who testified before the House Transportation Committee.
Lawmakers did pass a bill authorizing the Route 610 bridge to be named in honor of Trooper Jessica Cheney, killed while directing traffic around an accident scene on Route 1 in Stafford County.
The naming was aimed at putting an end to a dispute with the troopers parents, who fought with authorities to keep a 5-foot-high permanent sign standing along Route 1 South.
In Maryland, the law states that nothing may be left on a state right of way. But because of the sensitivity of car crashes, highway crews give the mourners some time.
“Right after someones had a fatal accident and a small memorial goes up, we dont rush out to clear the memorial unless its a safety hazard,” said the highway administrations Ms. Edgar.
She said Maryland, like Virginia, often waits for crosses, signs and stuffed animals to disintegrate or blow away. Workers usually pick up the pieces left behind. No permanent markers are left standing for long.
In one instance, someone left a 4-foot-tall white cross along Route 50 near the Eastern Shore. Crews took the cross and stored it in a maintenance shop until a landowner agreed to place it on his property overlooking the road.
As an alternative, mourners are urged to join the Adopt-A-Road program or contribute to a community planting.
The Prince Georges County Council in 1998 approved a resolution to construct metal signs at crash sites to eulogize those killed and to serve as sobering reminders of the dangers of drinking and driving.
The program, however, never got off the ground.
West Virginia has gone beyond recognition of this custom and provides registration forms. The legislature in 1999 passed a law allowing memorials anywhere along state roads, “with as little interference as possible” — as long as they dont pose any dangers to motorists.

Copyright © 2021 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.

Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide