West Virginia Proposes State-Controlled Roadside Memorials

Balancing safety concerns against the wishes of families of highway fatality victims, West Virginia's Division of Highways wants to offer the option of state-maintained memorial signs near crash sites.

The cost to the grieving relatives could be up to $400.

"It's not about the money as it is about making it a safer situation for everybody," said John Walker, a deputy state highway engineer. "Some of these memorial markers are hazards not only to the traveling public but to the people that place them. The maintenance of them present issues for mowing and the safety of the motorists."

Currently, there is no federal law on roadside memorials, leaving regulation up to states and municipalities. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, at least a dozen states allow roadside memorials under certain conditions.

West Virginia allows people to place the memorials, for now. The pay-for-maintenance plan is part of a proposed regulation open for public comment.

The Legislature authorized the placement of memorial markers by anyone during the 2001 session. The markers are banned on medians, bridges, near intersecting roads and where they might interfere with a traffic control device.

Temporary roadside memorials are usually removed when highway crews mow the area every two to four weeks. Long-term memorials can be in place for up to three years, but victims' families must first receive the state's permission.

Walker didn't have an estimate on how many long-term roadside memorials are in existence, but said they were numerous and of many different constructions.

"Everything from Styrofoam, wire, flowers, brick, block, wood," Walker said. "You see people getting very elaborate, and in some cases small and simple."

Officially, California, Colorado, North Carolina and Wisconsin are among the states that prohibit the public from placing roadside memorials.

"We try to be sensitive to families," said Nicole Burris, a spokeswoman for the North Carolina Department of Transportation. "It is against state law, but we don't go out and actively look for (memorials) to remove them."

North Carolina and Wisconsin instead encourage victims' families to enter an "Adopt-A-Highway" program with state-approved signs noting it's in someone's memory. In Wisconsin, highway adopters are required to clean the highway section a minimum of three times a year.

Wisconsin also allows families in certain circumstances to place plantings at a rest area near a crash scene.

Among states that issue their own roadside memorial signs, Florida pays the costs for victims' families. In Colorado, a $100 fee covers six years, but the memorial signs aren't allowed on interstate highways.

California charges $1,000 over a seven-year period, but only for victims of drug- or alcohol-related accidents.

The proposed West Virginia rules would charge $200 to install a 2-by-2 foot memorial sign in white lettering on a blue background and maintain it for three years. The cost is $200 for an additional three years, Walker said.

Victims who died while committing a serious offense are ineligible under the new rules. Signs that are no longer used would be given to the family.

"We're just now getting into the sign part of it," Walker said. "I don't know if there will be a lot of people wanting to do that or not."

Letting the state do the work would take families out of harm's way.

"At least they wouldn't be carrying materials through traffic, lugging something heavy that would block their vision and distract them, pounding a stake in the ground with their back turned," Walker said.