Roadside Memorials Provide Difficult Balancing Act for States

Last week, I spoke with Mike Chalmers of USA Today for an article that ran in Wednesday's paper about states seeking alternatives to roadside memorials. Chalmers wrote about how Delaware has a memorial garden at a state rest area that provides a safe and tasteful alternative to the makeshift roadside memorials that honor victims of fatal traffic accidents but that sometimes pose safety hazards themselves. I told Chalmers that states will likely look to duplicate what Delaware is doing because it provides a sensible solution to what has proven to be a difficult balancing act for states.

States have tried to strike a balance between respecting the spontaneous outpourings of emotion from victims' families on the one hand and concerns about highway safety on the other. States have tried to both decrease the number of the makeshift memorials and provide one standardized format for "official" memorials. They have tried to strike a balance between making the standardized memorials affordable to families while allowing state government to raise some revenue or provide for the long term upkeep of the memorials. And states have tried to strike a balance between allowing grieving family members to remember their loved ones in the way they wish to and also make some kind of a statement to the rest of the traveling public about highway safety or drunk driving.

Add to the equation concerns expressed by atheists and others about religious imagery, such as crosses, being used in public spaces in the impromptu memorials and it's easy to see why the issue of roadside memorials has become so emotional for so many and resulted in different policy approaches around the country.

Chalmers' article points out that most states prohibit informal roadside shrines but few actually enforce such laws. Instead, a number of states are trying to encourage the use of standardized memorial signs. While Alaska, Florida and Wyoming will install such a sign free of charge, other states charge wide-ranging fees to put them up. Last year, West Virginia established a program to provide official signs at a cost of $200. But it doesn't appear to be catching on. It's unclear whether the cost is an issue or if there is a lack of public knowledge about the program, but only about 25 families applied for the official state marker since the state began accepting applications last July. In California, roadside memorials are allowed if alcohol was a factor in the crash and the victims' families must pay an even higher state fee--$1000.  

States have also looked to deliver safety messages on memorial signs as a cautionary tale to other drivers. Illinois has had a DUI memorial sign program where families can purchase a "Don't Drink and Drive" sign for $150, while a plaque with the victim's name costs another $50. Virginia will install a memorial sign that says "Drive safely in memory of..."

But this kind of messaging needs to reflect sensitivity to the family members of accident victims. A couple of years ago, the legislature in Missouri considered a bill that would have allowed families or friends to pay more than $1000 for officially sanctioned memorial signs that would stay up for 10 years. But many expressed concern about the proposed wording for the signs, which seemed lacking in subtlety and taste. The signs were going to read: "Drunk Driving Victim!" with the initials of the victim followed by "Who's Next?"

The Delaware Highway Memorial Garden seems to be a good solution to the difficult challenges states confront with making policy on roadside memorials. As I told Chalmers in the USA Today article, "It gets at the roadside safety issues while still giving the families an acceptable place to mourn." That's why I think it's something states will look to duplicate.

Read Chalmers' article here: http://www.usatoday.com/news/nation/2010-06-04-roadside-memorials-alternatives_N.htm