Posted on Oct 10, 2007

In this information age, there are symbols for everything, everywhere. Stop at a red light and you’re “head-ached” with stickers – not just on the bumper – from the car in front of you. “My kid is an honor roll student at …” is common. If someone has a pet, there is a decal signifying what type. If one owns beach property, there are acronyms telling all just where the hideaway exists. License plates are fair game too and the mixed bag of numbers and letters are a phonics-frenzy game for some.

Information Age Fosters Symbols for Any Message

In tragedy, there are signs as well. It’s commonplace to see wreaths and flowers along the road or against a tree, where someone has lost their life. “Makeshift memorials” have become the standard-bearer for motorist-related fatalities. Watch a television newscast and it’s the first thing “on camera” as an on-air personality walks reverently on the site with a microphone and muted voice.

However, “makeshift memorials” aren’t just for the grieving. Drivers take their eyes off the road to notice them. Those stopped at a light stare at them, trying to make out the name where the marker’s ink has run in the rain.

They’ve become hazards, which could cause another tragedy at the memorial, itself. Oftentimes, they’re situated at the base of a large tree, where a vehicle had impacted. Passing motorists focus on teddy bears and signs while trying to negotiate the same hairpin curve in the road. Usually, the accident site appears without warning, just as it might have during the fatal accident.

Roadside Memorials – Hallowed or Hazardous?

The debate on the memorial’s hazards pit surviving relatives and friends against police, road engineers and “disconnected” motorists who want them removed. It’s a sensitive issue without a governing law.

John P. Medeiros, who lost his 20-year-old son in a Rhode Island car accident in April 2002, gets "very upset" hearing people complain about roadside memorials, according to "People have to put themselves in our position to learn what we lost and what it means," said the high school gym teacher.

There have been only two cases when the Rhode Island Department of Transportation asked a family to remove a memorial for safety reasons, according to Dana Alexander Nolfe, department spokeswoman.

"It's an issue we're very aware of and we need to be sensitive. Right now we're handling it on a case-by-case basis. So long as it's not a safety issue and it's not a danger to drivers, we tend to leave them alone," she said.

Tiverton (R.I.) Police Chief Thomas Blakey said it's a "very delicate subject" and sympathizes with families who’ve lost loved ones in car accidents. "Yet I see them along main highways, and it leads me to wonder whether they're distracting to drivers sometimes," he said.

Blakey said long-term memorials should be located in safe areas, away from drivers. "I understand the respect they're trying to bestow, but there are some elaborate ones out there now," he said.

In Barrington, Police Chief John LaCross could recall only one occasion when police removed a memorial. LaCross also said memorials serve a good purpose. "Sometimes it's a reminder for people to exercise caution, slow down and wear safety belts." he said. “But if it's a location that poses a traffic hazard where there is no shoulder or the ability for people to pull off, there shouldn't be a memorial that could potentially cause a second accident," he added.