DOT: Roadside memorials must go

Roadside memorials are hallowed sites for those who've lost a loved one on a Georgia road, but state transportation officials say they are unsafe driver distractions and must go.

In place of the candles, roses and crosses, officials on Wednesday offered to install a simple white sign that will list the name of the person who died  under the words "Drive Safely, In Memory." The person who requests the sign must pay $100. The sign will stand for a year, and then be given to the person who paid for it.

These 15-inch oval signs with black lettering will be the only roadside memorials allowed on state and federal roads, according to the Georgia Department of Transportation. "All others will be removed for safety reasons," the agency said in a press release.

The new plan doesn't sit well with Donna Evans of Jonesboro, who placed a memorial wreath at the spot where her daughter died in a car crash in 2000 on Hastings Bridge Road in Clayton County.That memorial played an important part in Evans' grieving. More than her daughter's grave, the site by the side of the road became a place she could go and piece together her daughter's last moments.

"Every week I would go and place fresh flowers there and sit, cry, scream, vent whatever I needed to do at the time," said Evans, 53."She was 21 years old and about to get married."

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A white state-issued sign, she said, "would not be personal enough."

DOT spokesman David Spear knows his agency appears to be playing the heavy in this. Indeed, several people responding to an AJC blog on the topic Wednesday accused the state of being heartless and just interested in raising money off the misfortune of others. But Spear said important safety concerns are at play. Many roadside memorials are elaborate displays that draw the eyes of drivers away from the road, which can have fatal consequences.

He noted that 1,400 people die every year on Georgia roads, and he believes the people who put up memorials would not want to be responsible for causing another crash. In addition, people who gather at the memorials can come too close to fast-moving traffic, he said. "They put themselves in danger," he said.

But exactly how and when the state will remove existing memorials remains unclear. They are already prohibited under state law, and many are removed as workers cut the grass and pick up litter along the  roadways. But workers often leave the memorials for a time in deference to family and friends. Now, workers may more quickly dismantle them, or scale down the larger memorials, he said.

"We're going to be sensitive to the losses people have experienced," Spear said. "But we're going to be more diligent about removing them."

The state announcement only affects state and federal highways; cities and counties regulate their own roadways.

Many states are placing limits on roadside memorials, struggling to balance road safety with people's desire to express their grief, said Anne Teigen, a policy specilialst with the National Conference of State Legislatures. Several  states have adopted state-issued memorial markers or instituted criteria for private memorials.

Texas, for example, provides a state marker that remains at the crash site for a year, she said. Virginia can impose a civil penalty if a private memorial does not conform to its restrictions. Georgia already has a program to erect state markers for the victims of drunken drivers, as does California.

Roadside memorials can grow into elaborate shrines. When Harrison High School athlete Garrett Reed died in a car wreck in 2009, friends adorned the crash site with flowers, photos posted on trees, candles and three crosses. Someone left a ball cap with this inscription on the bill: "Garrett I'll miss you. And I know many others will too. May God give comfort and perserverence to all affected by this tragedy."

Evans eventually placed a cross at her daughter's memorial, which she visited for two years, until the site was developed as a subdivision.

Wednesday, some bloggers, reacting to the DOT's announcement,  called the memorials "tacky" or unnecessary. When Evans had had her fill of such comments, she posted one of her own:

"You can say what you will, but unless you have had to bury one of YOUR children at a young age and have to live with the pain everyday YOU have no idea what this does to a parent or family involved," she wrote. " Sometimes these memorials are the ONLY thing we have left."

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