Roadside memorials: tributes or hazards?
Seattle Times staff reporter
Tony and Amy Blount didn't see anything wrong with placing a small white cross at the intersection where their son died in an auto crash nearly three years ago. The 2-foot-tall make shift memorial didn't seem all that different from the informal shrines that are a common sight along roads in Washington and across the nation.
So the North Bend couple was surprised when King County officials told them roadside memorials like theirs are illegal and they'd have to remove it.
Now the Blounts are gathering signatures for an initiative that would authorize roadside memorials up to 2 feet high and 2 feet wide.
The proposed initiative has raised a question legislators and highway officials are facing around the country: Are roadside memorials an appropriate tribute to crash victims, or are they a hazard to motorists?
Shortly after Brandon Blount's death in September 1997, the 18-year-old Mount Si High School student's friends erected a small wooden cross on the hillside near the accident site, two blocks from his house. Blount said he put a 2-foot steel cross in its place after the wooden one was vandalized and set on fire.
Like many such memorials, the steel cross became a gathering spot for the young man's friends, who would leave flowers, pictures or other items. In fact, since Brandon's body had been cremated, the memorial was the only place his friends had to go to remember him.
"We don't have a headstone in a cemetery or anything like that," Blount said. "This is the closest thing that we have for him."
But the cross also led to dozens of phone calls to the King County Department of Transportation - primarily from neighbors concerned about the appearance of the site and the number of people who would congregate at the cross.
While roadside memorials are technically not allowed on public rights of way, according to Linda Dougherty, King County's acting roads-division manager, highway officials don't try to remove them unless they pose a threat to safety.
Dougherty said the Blount memorial won't be touched for the time being, but officials hope to work out a compromise with the family.
"We're not the memorial police, so to speak," Dougherty said.
The problem, officials say, is not memorials themselves but the crowds drawn to them.
"Oftentimes, these memorials turn into a shrine sort of thing," said Lloyd Ensley, traffic regulations specialist for the state Department of Transportation (DOT). "That can turn into a dangerous situation."
Roadside memorials are common in the state. In North Bend alone, Blount points out a number of such remembrances - some simple, some elaborate.
Some roadside markers in the state date to the 1950s, but a University of Washington researcher says the practice of creating makeshift shrines most likely was revived by the mourners who left items at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.
Jim Green, who teaches a UW anthropology course on different cultural approaches to death, notes that since most of the victims of rural-road fatalities are of high-school age, their friends are trying to mourn outside the traditional cemetery or church.
"They're trying to go against the commercial control of death and make it a more personal experience," Green said. "It's a very community-oriented way of grieving."
The debate over makeshift memorials has been waged throughout the country. In the past few years, Oregon and California have enforced restrictions against them.
But Montana, in cooperation with the American Legion Highway White Cross Program, has allowed fatality sites to be marked with small white crosses since 1953. And Florida, after banning unofficial memorials in 1997, instituted a similar program - but replaced the crosses with plain white circles after the issue of separation of church and state was raised.
In addition to providing a focus for mourning, the memorials serve as a grim reminder for drivers to stay alert on the road, supporters argue.
In an effort to curb makeshift shrines, Washington state offers two memorial-sign programs of its own. For a fee, families of those killed in drunken-driving crashes can place a memorial sign at the site. The signs, which say "Please Don't Drink and Drive" and bear the name of the accident victim, cost between $200 and $600.
Others can have a perennial or shrub, with a temporary sign or plaque in honor of the victim, planted at the site.
The DWI sign program has been popular, but few have shown interest in the plantings, says the DOT's Ensley, who coordinates the statewide program.
"I believe most people would like to see something more personal," he said.
Changing the law to allow for a more personal monument to those killed in auto crashes may be a long battle for Tony Blount. He and his wife have gathered 50,000 signatures, but Blount doubts he will have the 180,000 signatures necessary by July 7 to get on the ballot.
And state Sen. Dino Rossi, R-Issaquah, says, "It's something I believe would be difficult to get through the Legislature. It's just a very difficult issue, for both sides."
Blount says he's determined, though, and will return with another initiative in 2002 if he has to.
Andrew DeMillo's phone message number is 206-464-2782. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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