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Tuesday 03 June 2003

Roadside Memorials

There has been a fair amount of commentary lately about the practice of erecting unofficial roadside memorials to people killed in traffic accidents. Families of victims want these things to be permanent, and state and local governments see them as distractions for the drivers who are still living.

In Wisconsin, the families claim that the state is being pressured by anti-religious groups, who object because most of these memorials are small tacky crosses. The state denies this, but it still eventually removes the memorials.

Most of the on-line commentary I’ve seen sides with the state against the families, and I think I’m inclined to agree with this. Most of the families interviewed seem to believe that they have a ‘right’ to put these memorials on the side of the road, and that the state must respect that right, rather than treating the stuff just as they would anything else in the same place — as litter.

But all the random blog-commentary also seems to be flatly against the concept of roadside memorials, which I believe is a mistake.

The state maintains that the memorials are a dangerous distraction to drivers; but certainly the ordinary roadside memorial is no more distracting than common road signs, particularly those festooned with logos from the fast-food places near the next exit. You’ve got to squint at some of those to distinguish the names, but those aren’t distracting, because they generate revenue for the transportation department.

For all our worrying about SIDS and Anthrax and Drugs and Trunk Entrapment and kids getting run over by school buses and the like, the reality is that getting into a car is the most dangerous thing most people will ever do. More ‘premature’ deaths in the United States (and, probably, in most industrialized countries) are caused by car accidents than by anything else.

Roadside memorials can communicate this hazard to drivers better than any Slippery When Wet or speed limit sign ever does: they say, “Someone died here doing just what you’re doing now”. Because the placement of these memorials is so haphazard, and because they’re often removed after a short time, I’m sure nobody’s ever done a study of whether they actually reduce the occurrence of further fatalities in the same place; but if they do, they would have the advantage of enhancing the safety of all cars, without the expense of retrofitting them with air bags, fancier seat belts, child seats, etc.

They also can serve to alert drivers to deficiencies in the road design itself. A curve, an intersection, a crest of a hill with a lot of fatal accidents and thus a lot of memorials would be clearly distinguishable by approaching drivers. The presence of the memorials alone might result in the hazard being diminished — and if it didn’t it would make the public aware that that section of road needs to be redesigned.

Posted by tino at 12:06 3.06.03
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In South Dakota they have little Xs which appear to be SDDOT-standard on the side of the highway (at least on I-90) wherever there’s been a fatality. No homemade memorials or anything, but markers nonetheless. I didn’t realize what they were until I saw a billboard explaining it. It was actually a little disconcerting, especially seeing them in clusters. I’ve never seen anything like that anywhere else.

Posted by: Erica at June 4, 2003 03:25 PM

This is pretty interesting. I agree with the author.

Posted by: exchange at January 31, 2004 12:21 AM