Thursday, July 21, 2005

Uncomfortable Reminders

I started off in college as a Journalism major. I switched after a couple of years but retain some residual interest in journalism and subscribe to a Poynter Institute Morning Meeting email. This has story ideas for journalists. Cleaning up emails, I read this one about roadside memorials.

A battle is emerging over roadside memorials that are springing up everywhere. Sometimes the memorials themselves create traffic hazards. Memorials are becoming so commonplace that this website documents thousands of such memorials from sea to sea. I have touched on this topic a couple of times in the past, once in August 2003 and again in June 2003.

There are questions about whether overly religious markers should be allowed on government property. Some states, like Wisconsin, decided to allow memorials to remain in some places for up a year. Alaska places the limit at two years.

USA Today reported that Roadside memorials were once most common in the Southwest , where they evolved from centuries-old Catholic traditions in Spain and Mexico. Now, they're everywhere -- from rural Wyoming, where school kids designed the state's official memorial sign, to New York City, where artists install white "ghost bikes" at the site of deadly bicycle crashes.

There's no national law on roadside memorials. States and municipalities apply a hodge-podge of policies. The issue is often emotional: Arguments about traffic hazards and right-of-way aren't welcome by families in mourning.

Some states, like North Carolina and Oregon, prohibit the shrines. Others, like Florida and Washington, allow only state-sanctioned markers. Only Alaska and West Virginia have statutes that encourage memorials. (In fact, West Virginia asks that those who place the memorials put some contact information on the memorials in case highway workers have to disturb the markers.)

Utah will ban memorials later this year and instead offer to plant wildflowers or erect a state-approved sign. Delaware began engraving bricks this year for a state-maintained memorial garden. And in May, Norton, Mass., imposed a 30-day limit on roadside shrines.

As the number and scope of the memorials grow, battles have become more common: A year after a series of heated public hearings in 2004, Nevada has yet to decide how to regulate roadside memorials. The issue came to a head after state highway officials, threatened with a lawsuit, removed an 8-foot, steel cross from U.S. Highway 50 near Carson City. "It became a huge emotional issue. And here we are, the big bad government, in between," says Scott Magruder, a spokesman for the Nevada Department of Transportation. ...

Minnesota cracked down last summer by clearing interstates and freeways of personal memorials. The action came after the fatal car crash of hockey great Herb Brooks, who coached the U.S. Olympics team in 1980 to victory over the Soviet Union.

Hundreds of mourners left flowers, balloons, hockey paraphernalia, even a huge plywood "M" for the University of Minnesota at the site of Brooks' 2003 accident on Interstate 35. "The bottom line is safety," says Kevin Gutkneckt, a spokesman for Minnesota's transportation department. "We don't want things built on the roadsides that could cause a crash." [Read Minnesota's official policy by clicking here.] also has a thoughtful piece from a few years ago that is worth a look. did a big story about the conflicts emerging over roadside memorials in 2003. Be sure to check and see if specific state laws have changed since then.

A sociology professor from Virginia Tech, Clifton Bryant, says these roadside memorials can be important:
Roadside memorials also may be an attempt by the survivors to warn others of an unsafe stretch of road, Bryant suggests.

But, more importantly, roadside or other impromptu memorials mark the untimeliness of the deaths. When people are sick and hospitalized and their deaths are expected, there is no similar need to mark the spot of where they died. But when death is unexpected, it disturbs people's sense of time, of specificity. "There's something mystical, if not magic, about the site of the death," Bryant says. "There's a symbolic significance of the exact spot where they died. Instant monuments provide some symbolic stability, a lighthouse to the place people can go to pay homage."

This is interesting as the debate is couched in terms of religious observance on public land, safety risk, etc. I wonder how much of it is squeamishness about the ubiquity of these sudden, untimely deaths. Minnesota is mentioned in there with the context of the death of Herb Brooks, the coach of the 1980 U.S. Olympic Miracle on Ice hockey team. He fell asleep at the wheel, ran off Interstate 35 and was thrown from his minivan. He wasn't wearing a seatbelt. There is now a statue of him in downtown St. Paul holding his arms up. It's supposed to signify the victory over the Russians leading towards the gold medal game (against the Swedes, though people forget that) but I think of it as the pose he must have had as he went through the windshield in part because of his free choice not to wear a seatbelt. Fame is no protector of the foolish, as Princess Diana also found out.

Rather than remove these memorials after a year or two, they ought to be permanent. Wouldn't fields of little white crosses with names and dates be a sobering reminder of the price we pay for our mobility? I've been driving for thirty years; during that time, something like 1,400,000 people have been killed on the nation's roadways with millions more injured. Maybe if we planted little crosses every time someone was killed and we left them in place and maintained them, their ubiquity and frequency would make people think a little harder about how they drive.

Of course, we'd have to hang up our cellphones long enough to notice.

Be careful out there.


song 2 the siren said...

The average person is trying to insulate themselves from reality to the point where death is just some abstract concept that doesn't get talked about or even enter their minds. A climate-controlled car is a metaphor for the perfect safe nonreality that 99% of Americans think they deserve.

To see a good microcosm of society, watch the battle for close parking spots in a Target or WalMart parking lot.

kentuckyliz said...

It's always crosses. Apparently Muslims and Jews and others never die on the highways. Perhaps we should study what they're doing right.

In these high speed, mountainous, curvy Appalachian highways, with out of control overloaded coal trucks, I can understand running off the road. But in the flatlands? On a straight road? "EEEEEEEEYAHHHH!" *crash* Too challenging to drive a straight line on a straight road, apparently.

Which is why teen drinking in the flatlands means a wrecked car, while in Appalachia it means a wrecked car and a death or two.

Don't EVEN get me started on how crazy it is that our state started allowing ATVs on the roads. Yeah, it was for the western flatland farms. But it doesn't work on our curvy mountain roads. People are dying.

I'd like to bike commute, but you hain't never seen traffic habits like out here. I'm considering canoeing or kayaking on the river to work. No traffic there...and I'm a water soul.