- The Washington Times - Friday, February 21, 2003

RICHMOND (AP) The Commonwealth Transportation Board yesterday voted to erect roadside markers in memory of those who die on the state's highways.

The markers would replace crosses, stuffed animals, painted signs, ceramic angels and other artifacts that friends and relatives have placed on roadsides where loved ones have died.

The program would remember victims of traffic accidents, as well as those who cause accidents.

"We're not going to be judgmental," C. Frank Gee, the Transportation Department's chief engineer of operations, told the board Wednesday. "We're trying to send a message of safe driving."

The department hopes the official markers will recognize the deceased and remove the hazards posed by mourners tending personal memorials near busy and dangerous roads.

"While safety is a critical aspect, another important reason of the roadside memorial program is to show respect for the feelings of family and friends of the deceased," said Transportation Secretary Whitt Clement.

Transportation board members questioned the appropriateness of memorializing drivers who cause others' deaths, the program's cost, dealing with distraught and possibly divided families, and the potential of creating yet more safety problems as people stop to view the memorials.

"Two hundred and fifty dollars sounds like a lot of money to me," said board member Harry T. Lester of Virginia Beach. He was referring to the cost of each sign. "Why would we be doing this for free?"

The program's cost, which highway department officials estimated will be much less than $250,000 a year, pales compared with the expenses of dealing with the proliferating personal memorials, said Transportation Commissioner Philip A. Shucet.

Only highway deaths occurring after the plan goes into effect this summer would be eligible for a state memorial sign.

The 3-foot-tall white, gray and black markers would say, "Drive safely in memory of," followed by the name of the deceased on a separate metal section.

Each sign would cost $250, the department said, to make, erect and remove after two years at state expense. When the sign is taken down, family members would be given the section of it with the dead person's name, if they wish to have it.

In 2001, the last year for which complete figures are available from the Department of Motor Vehicles, 935 persons were killed in 144,585 vehicle accidents on Virginia's highways.

The 2002 General Assembly ordered the Transportation Department to set up a program governing roadside memorials.

That bill, sponsored by Delegate Robert D. Orrock Sr., Caroline County Republican, also calls for a fine of up to $100 for setting up unauthorized memorials in the state's rights of way.

Money from those fines will go into Virginia's highway maintenance and operating fund.

The memorials would be available on any state-maintained road. The Federal Highway Administration has to approve the memorial program for use on interstate highways.

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