Roadside memorial

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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.

Roadside memorial, Virginia, United States

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 at intersections.[citation needed]

Meaning and messageEdit

A ghost bike in Berlin.

Roadside memorials are a statement of grief and love from the loved ones of the accident victim or victims.[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 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[citation needed]. 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.[citation needed]

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 practiceEdit

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]


A roadside memorial in Ukraine

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 KingdomEdit

A tribute at a North London railway station. The message reads: "You collapsed one month ago here at the station died 13 days later. RIP Tracey your son is doing well. X Love and miss you loads"

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 StatesEdit

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, Connecticut 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 origin of roadside crosses in the United States has its roots with the early Mexican settlers of the south-western United States, and are common in areas with large Hispanic populations.[citation needed] 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.[citation needed] 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.

Roadside memorial to fallen police officer in Gervais, Oregon.
A roadside memorial fountain with a statue of Jesus and three angels in Conneaut, Ohio.
A memorial site for a young girl who took her life in the ocean in Ystad 2013. The site is still being visited and maintained in 2020.

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.[clarification needed]

South Dakotan THINK Signs are used for a similar purpose in the state of South Dakota. These signs mark the cite of a fatal road accident anywhere in the state. Approximately half of all signs are in place due to drunk driving.[8] The signs read either "THINK!" or "WHY DIE?" and feature a prominent red X and a black and white backdrop.

The states of Colorado, Massachusetts, Kentucky, and Wisconsin ban such memorials.[citation needed]

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.[9] Other states impose specific requirements for roadside memorials.[10][11]

A small memorial erected by the Jianshui County Police Department in memory of 10 people who perished in a bus plunge off Yunnan Provincial Highway 214, as it descends toward the Red River Fault in a series of switchbacks

In Birmingham, Alabama, roadside memorials have been removed from Interstate highways.[12] 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.[citation needed] 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.[citation needed]

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.[13] On 18 August 2010 the Tenth Circuit held that the State of Utah violated the Establishment Clause of the Constitution by constructing a series of 12-foot high Latin crosses along the roadside to memorialize fallen state troopers.[14] In Lake Elsinore California, a personal roadside cross was removed following a complaint by the American Humanist Association.[15]

In the state of Virginia, family-made temporary memorials of whatever shape and construction may be replaced by a state-issue memorial roadsign saying "DRIVE SAFELY IN MEMORY OF" with a name plate; such signs avoid the state-religious-endorsement controversy by only using a generic circle as an emblem.

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Reid, A. (2015). "Place, Meaning, and the Visual Argument of the Roadside Cross, Savannah Law Review". 2: 265–300. SSRN 2633661. {{cite journal}}: Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  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. ^ a b "I25 crews protect roadside memorial". 3 March 2009. Archived from the original on 6 March 2009. Retrieved 29 August 2009.
  8. ^ "South Dakota THINK Signs | SD DPS". South Dakota Dept. of Public Safety. South Dakota Department of Public Safety. Retrieved 3 October 2021.
  9. ^ "Community Programs and Services – Delaware Highway Memorial Garden". Delaware Department of Transportation. Archived from the original on 11 March 2015. Retrieved 7 March 2015.
  10. ^ Commercial Appeal : Memphis News, Business, Homes, Jobs, Cars, & Information Archived 19 March 2006 at the Wayback Machine
  11. ^ "(see state by state requirements)". 8 September 2004. Archived from the original on 5 November 2011. Retrieved 13 November 2011.
  12. ^ "Yahoo!".
  13. ^ 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". 92: 124–184. SSRN 2278611. {{cite journal}}: Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  14. ^ "American Atheists, Inc. v. Duncan". Retrieved 10 March 2014.
  15. ^ "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.

External linksEdit