McCallum: Roadside Memorials

Aug 10, 2016

I see them all the time: electronic traffic signs warning drivers of safety hazards, road work and weather conditions. With orange letters against a black background they’re so familiar that many of us don’t pay them much attention as we speed along, intent on time and destination. But one with the number of traffic fatalities this year on Vermont roads sticks with me.

In June, Vermont State Police announced that traffic fatalities had more than doubled over last year. By late July, we’d reached thirty-six compared to twenty-seven in all of last year. Only nine of them were not alcohol or drug related. And almost 39% were not wearing seat belts. Speed was likely a factor in most. They’re sobering statistics.

But we humans usually need more than hard data to catch and keep our attention. A single thoughtfully written obituary or solitary roadside shrine - complete with flowers, mementos and a hand lettered sign – are harder to ignore while they remind us that driving can be dangerous even in the best conditions.

There are several of these roadside memorials near where I live, where I’ve watched some grow into distinctive collections of artificial blooms, photographs and twirling pinwheels – only to disappear through time and weather.

Others have persisted for years. One, located at a dangerous S-curve on a busy road, changes with the seasons - colorful plastic flowers turn into fall mums that are replaced with a decorated holiday wreath next to a single cross with a woman’s name on it. I expect that spot marks the place where she was last alive on this earth. For those who knew her, it’s holy ground.

If every traffic fatality in every state were marked by a visible statement of love and loss for all to see, our roadsides would be laden with displays ranging from simple lone crosses to heaps of memorabilia and flowers. So for safety reasons and concern about visual clutter, some states – as well as a few countries - ban them. As far as I know, Vermont doesn't.

But despite the fact that we have no national policy on roadside memorials, some who see them as hazards are pushing to restrict them. A recent New York Times opinion page was dedicated to the pros and cons of limiting these public expressions of grief that put a personal face on each traffic fatality.

My view is that yes, they’re controversial. And they can be messy. But at least they remind us to slow down.