N.C. bans roadside memorials

Poignant markers along busy roads called a safety hazard

November 11, 2001|By Dianne Whitacre | Dianne Whitacre,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

CHARLOTTE, N.C. - Wreaths, crosses and other memorials used by grieving families to mark the spot where a loved one died are no longer allowed on North Carolina's roads.

The memorials are a safety hazard, state officials say, because families sometimes park on busy highways to visit them. From now on, the memorials will be removed and held for families who want them.

Families of wreck victims say the wreaths are an important reminder to them and other drivers that a life has been needlessly lost.

The poignant markers are common along interstates and roads. Some are faded; others are freshened up at Christmas, on a birthday or on the wreck's anniversary.

Soon, highway crews will start collecting the ones they notice, said Lacy Love of the North Carolina Department of Transportation. "We will store them so the family can come by and pick them up," Love said. "We certainly will not trash them."

The family of Jackie Daniel of Kannapolis, N.C., put up a wreath on Interstate 85 where he was killed by a truck in 1994. Daniel, an enforcement officer for the Division of Motor Vehicles, was helping a stranded motorist.

The wreath stayed up about a year, said his widow, Janice Ortiz, who has remarried.

"I think the memorials are very important to the family and helps them in the grieving process," she said. "I've had several people tell me when they drove by it that they remembered the accident."

But safety is all important, she said. "If they're causing a problem, I don't have a problem in taking them down."

Mike Owensby of Catawba County, whose daughter Kirsten was killed in a wreck last summer, feels similarly. He said he found the memorials distracting and didn't put one up.

Technically, the roadside memorials have been illegal for years, said Mike Holder, state division engineer for Gaston, Iredell, Catawba, Cleveland, and Lincoln counties. Out of respect for the families, the wreaths were often overlooked unless they blocked drivers' view, he said.

South Carolina law also prohibits the wreaths, but they are often left until they fall apart. Families can ask their county coroner to paint a white cross on the highway at the accident scene.

The memorials are a touchy subject in other places too. Some states, including Florida and California, prohibit homemade crosses on the grounds they violate separation of church and state. In Texas, the state recently deferred to public protests and backed away from banning homemade memorials.

North Carolina officials say they are strictly concerned about safety. Highway officials will urge families to honor an accident victim by donating money for roadside landscaping or by joining the Adopt-A-Highway program.

If they agree to pick up trash along a stretch of highway, the state will put up two signs noting the victim's name. About 15 percent of the state's Adopt-A-Highway signs now memorialize someone, Love said.

He said the state would work with families.

"This is so sensitive with people who are grieving that we don't want to do anything to cause them more pain," Love said.

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