A tribute too far

May 07, 2006

Rare is the Maryland motorist who doesn't pass a roadside memorial on his daily commute. Often they are simple crosses or bunches of plastic flowers set near the spot of a fatal crash in honor of the victim. Such tributes were virtually unknown two decades ago, but today they are commonplace. Most don't pose a problem - they can even be a stark reminder to strangers about the dangers of the road - but sometimes, matters get out of hand.

That's exactly what happened in Anne Arundel County in late March when a dispute over a particularly obtrusive memorial - a 4-foot-tall wooden cross planted between median guardrails and decorated with an illuminated star and a variety of plastic yard ornaments - launched a high-speed chase. An Interstate 97 motorist was unhappy with what he perceived as a roadside hazard. His effort to remove the offending memorial caused family members of the deceased to give chase all the way to a state police barracks.

While the circumstances are unusual, the incident underscores a serious situation. The Anne Arundel motorist was right (even if he shouldn't have taken matters into his own hands). Such a large cross represents an obvious safety hazard. State Highway Administration officials have acknowledged as much. They say memorials along state highways have never been legal.

Tall crosses or glass picture frames can become dangerous projectiles during an accident. The more grandiose tributes (some have featured Christmas lights or dozens of teddy bears) create unacceptable distractions to drivers. And perhaps worst of all, many of these memorials will attract regular visitors who pull over on the shoulder and linger. That's unacceptable.

In an effort to be sensitive, officials have too often looked the other way. And that's been wrongly perceived as a tacit endorsement. The SHA can no longer be so lenient.

We endorse any effort by the state or local roads departments to discourage hazardous memorials. Mourners can already adopt a section of road in honor of a loved one, but other tributes might be available. Delaware, for instance, is developing a memorial garden at a rest stop. Other states will install a permanent "in memory of" sign for victims at the nearest entrance ramp. Either would be preferable to the current practice. Our highways are dangerous enough without memorials, ironic as that might be, making them any worse.

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