Roadside memorial

A roadside memorial is a marker that usually commemorates a site where a person died suddenly and unexpectedly, away from home. Unlike a grave site headstone, which marks where a body is laid, the memorial marks the last place on earth where a person was alive – although in the past travelers were, out of necessity, often buried where they fell.

Usually the memorial is created and maintained by family members or friends of the person who died. A common type of memorial is simply a bunch of flowers, real or plastic, taped to street furniture or a tree trunk. A handwritten message, personal mementos, etc. may be included. More sophisticated memorials may be a memorial cross, ghost bike, or a plaque with an inscription, decorated with flowers or wreaths.

Roadside memorials tend to be clustered along the busiest roadways and often times at intersections.

Meaning and message

Roadside memorials are a statement of grief and love from the loved ones of the accident victim(s).[1]

But apart from their personal significance, these memorials also serve as a reminder and warning to other road users of the dangers of driving, and to encourage safer driving.[2][3] In the 1940s and 1950s, the Arizona State Highway Patrol began using white crosses to mark the site of fatal car accidents. This practice was continued by families of road-crash victims after it had been abandoned by the police. The ghost bike phenomenon, where an old bicycle is painted white and locked up at an accident site, serves the same purpose in relation to cycling casualties.

Historically, roadside memorials were personal memorials, but there is a modern trend toward public memorials of increasingly large size. Typically little or no effort is made to make the memorials accommodate the natural beauty of the landscape and many roadside memorials, over time, lack proper maintenance.

The phenomenon of roadside memorials may be associated with another growing trend: public outpouring of grief for celebrities. The death of Diana, Princess of Wales, for example, precipitated an avalanche of flowers and wreaths at the Pont de l'Alma road tunnel in Paris, the site of her death, and at Kensington Palace, her home in London. While car-crash victims are rarely so well known, something of the same sort of impulse to make a public display of emotion at the site of a tragedy may be partly responsible for the growing popularity of roadside memorials. The broad phenomenon of creating improvised and temporary memorials after traumatic death (accidents, murder, disasters etc.) has become popular since the 1980s. Because of their non-institutionalized character they are generically coined as grassroots memorials.[4]

History and practice

Roadside memorials have been erected around the world for centuries. Their legality varies from country to country.


The number of memorials erected in Australia since 1990 has increased considerably. In 2003, it was estimated that one in five road deaths were memorialized at the site of the crash.[5]


It is traditional in Ukraine to place a roadside memorial on the site of a deadly car or motorcycle crash. It is usually a cross or a small monument with a wreath of flowers. There are also usually fresh flowers regularly placed by the cross if the relatives of the person who died live close enough to look after the memorial. Sometimes Ukrainian roadside memorials can be more elaborate, including a small granite or marble gravestone and/or a picture of the loved one.

United Kingdom

In the United Kingdom, the practice of erecting roadside memorials has recently generated a media debate about the danger these memorials may pose to other road users and to people erecting them in unsafe places. This debate has been sparked by accounts of dangerous actions, such as when an adult crosses a main road with a child to place a tribute. Some jurisdictions already enforce local regulations, and police officials and local councilors have suggested that uniform rules be introduced across the country. For example, according to the BBC, in Merthyr Tydfil, memorials will only be allowed where it is deemed safe and appropriate, and they will be removed after three months.[6]

United States

The spread of spontaneous roadside memorials to mark the site of fatal traffic accidents in the United States is a relatively new phenomenon. There is a gravestone-style memorial in Ellington, CT marking a child's death in 1812. A typical memorial includes a cross (usually wooden), flowers, hand-painted signs, and, in the case of a child's death, stuffed animals.

The spread of roadside memorials in the United States has increased in recent decades as a result of large immigrant populations from Mexico entering the country . And while not limited to Mexican populations, roadside memorials are most common in areas with large Mexican populations. Formerly, in funerary processions where a group would proceed from a church to a graveyard carrying a coffin, the bearers would take a rest, or descanso in Spanish, and wherever they set the coffin down, a cross would be placed there in memory of the event. The modern practice of roadside shrines commemorate the last place a person was alive before receiving fatal injuries, even if they should actually die in a hospital after the crash.[7]

In the southwestern United States, they are also common at historic parajes on old long distance trails, going back to the roots of the tradition, and also marked the graves of people who died while traveling. A descanso memorial may be decorated especially for the holidays, and for significant anniversaries in the person's life. A descanso memorial for a child may be decorated with special toys, even toy vignettes of family life, and votive candles may be placed there on special nights.

In the United States, the legal situation varies from state to state.

In New Mexico, Department of Transportation crews undertaking new construction are not required to protect them, but usually either avoid altering them, or otherwise place them as close to where they originally were as possible once construction has been completed as a courtesy.[7]

In California, Streets and Highways Code Section 101.10 directs the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) to place and maintain memorial signs along state highways that read “Please Don't Drink and Drive” followed by “In Memory of {victim's name}.” Caltrans places signs at the request of victims’ relatives when there is a fatality as a result of an alcohol or drug-impaired driver. The signs are to remain in place for a period of seven years. The department shall charge the requesting party a fee to cover the department’s cost in designing, constructing, placing, and maintaining that sign, and the department’s costs in administering this section.

The states of Colorado, Massachusetts, Kentucky, and Wisconsin ban such memorials.

In the state of Delaware, roadside memorials are illegal per the Clear Zone Act for safety reasons. As an alternative to roadside memorials, the Delaware Highway Memorial Garden located at the Smyrna Rest Area consists of a path with bricks bearing the names of people who died along roads in Delaware.[8] Other states impose specific requirements for roadside memorials.[9][10]

In Birmingham, Alabama, roadside memorials have been removed from Interstate highways.[11] Some people view unauthorized street memorials as illegal and think they constitute the taking of public property for private purposes, and are also a distraction and therefore dangerous to the motoring public. Others think they serve as a sort of public service announcement that reminds drivers to be careful and drive safely, and are no more distracting than any other roadside advertisement. For anyone but those close to the death, they may do little but clutter the landscape. If the memorial is located on a road that the loved ones seldom or never travel, or in a remote area, it may be seen as a form of grandstanding.

Using a Christian cross as a memorial along a public highway can be seen as an illegal endorsement of religion and has been challenged in a growing number of lawsuits by secular groups concerned about the separation of church and state.[12] On 18 August 2010 the Tenth Circuit held that the State of Utah violated the Establishment Clause by constructing a series of 12-foot high Latin crosses along the roadside to memorialize fallen state troopers.[13] In Lake Elsinore California, a personal roadside cross was removed following a complaint by the American Humanist Association.[14]

See also


  1. Reid, A. (2015). "Place, Meaning, and the Visual Argument of the Roadside Cross, Savannah Law Review". pp. 265–300.
  2. Tay, R., Churchill, A. & de Barros, A. 2011. Effect of roadside memorial on traffic flow, Accident Analysis and Prevention, vol. 43, pp.483–486
  3. Tay, R. 2009. Drivers' perceptions and reactions to roadside memorials, Accident Analysis and Prevention, vol. pp.41, 663–669
  4. Grassroots Memorials: The Politics of Memorializing Traumatic Death, eds Peter Jan Margry and Cristina Sánchez-Carretero (New York: Berghahn, 2011)
  5. Motha, Joe, ed. (2003), Road Safety in Australia: a Publication Commemorating World Health Day 2004 (PDF), Australian Transport Safety Bureau, p. 290, retrieved 21 December 2009
  6. "'Dangerous' road tributes concern". BBC News. 15 March 2006. Retrieved 22 May 2010.
  7. "I25 crews protect roadside memorial". 3 March 2009. Archived from the original on 6 March 2009. Retrieved 29 August 2009.
  8. "Community Programs and Services – Delaware Highway Memorial Garden". Delaware Department of Transportation. Archived from the original on 11 March 2015. Retrieved 7 March 2015.
  9. Commercial Appeal : Memphis News, Business, Homes, Jobs, Cars, & Information Archived 19 March 2006 at the Wayback Machine
  10. "(see state by state requirements)". 8 September 2004. Archived from the original on 5 November 2011. Retrieved 13 November 2011.
  11. "Yahoo!".
  12. Reid, A. (2013). "Private Memorials on Public Space: Roadside Crosses at the Intersection of the Free Speech Clause and the Establishment Clause, Nebraska Law Review". pp. 124–184.
  13. "American Atheists, Inc. v. Duncan". Retrieved 10 March 2014.
  14. "Mom Who Lost Son In Fatal Crash To Remove Cross Memorial After Atheist Group Complains". CBS Los Angeles. 6 March 2014. Retrieved 10 March 2014.
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