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Roadside Memorials: Meaning & Laws Explained

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If you’ve ever passed a cross, flower arrangement, or other markers with someone’s name while driving, you’ve likely encountered a roadside memorial. A roadside memorial is a way for family members to honor the death of a loved one who died in a motor accident. According to the Association for Safe International Road Travel, around 1.25 million people die in road crashes every single year. This is an average of 3,200 deaths per day. 

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With so many deaths happening on the road, family members want to bring awareness to this issue. Roadside memorials are a tribute to the lost lives of so many loved ones, and they’re a way to indicate that a tragic auto accident took place at that location. What exactly is the meaning behind these memorials, and how do they relate to any local or national laws?

What Do Roadside Memorials Look Like?

You’ve likely seen these roadside markers before, though you might not have known the significance behind them at first glance. Because these are created by family members of the deceased, there are no specific rules for how they look. They come in many shapes and forms, and they usually have significance for the family in particular. 

Roadside memorials commonly include any of these things:

  • Religious symbols (like the Christian cross or the Star of David) 
  • Flowers and wreaths
  • Photographs
  • The deceased person’s name
  • The date of death
  • Personal notes
  • Colorful ribbons for balloons
  • Teddy bears or other toys
  • Flags or pinwheels
  • Candles or lights

This type of memorial is a way to remember a family member who lost his or her life in an auto accident. As such, the appearance and meaning behind these displays are deeply personal to the family. 

Purpose and History of Roadside Memorials

What is the purpose behind these markers? More importantly, when did this tradition get its start? These are complex questions, but the answers are clear. 

Why do families create roadside memorials?

Unlike a typical headstone or other memorial, this isn’t a marker indicating the final resting place of a body. It’s a sign that this was the place where someone died, but this only is for auto or roadside accidents. 

The purpose of these memorials is very different from traditional headstones or grave markers. Since these are located so close to roadways, they’re a warning for drivers and pedestrians. They’re often found near intersections, road curves, guardrails, or other dangerous streets. They let drivers know that they need to be careful. Lives are always at stake when you get behind the wheel. That isn’t always something we remember without the help of these signs.  

History of these memorials

Though you’ll find roadside memorials in all 50 states, this is a practice dating back to the American Southwest. In the southwest states of Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona, public memorials have been a custom for over 200 years. They started simply. Small white crosses would be placed at the side of the road for the funeral procession to follow between the church and the graveyard. 

This tradition grew, inspired by Hispanic, Catholic, and indigenous influencers from the region. These resting places were known as “descansos” in Spanish since they were places for the funeral procession to rest and pray on their way to the final resting place. 

Today, they’ve evolved to communicate that this was the site of a traffic fatality. They’re seen not only across the entire United States but even in other parts of the world. From shrines on the side of rural streets to busy intersections, this is a way to leave something meaningful in memory of a loved one

Roadside Memorial Laws in the US

While roadside memorials are common, that doesn’t mean they’re always allowed. These memorials linger in a tricky middle ground legally. In many places across the country, they’re actually illegal. Yet, local governments rarely interfere since these tributes are so meaningful to the family and they also act as a warning to other motorists. 

There are a handful of states with regulations making all roadside memorials illegal, such as Alabama, Arizona, and New York. There are other states where they are legal, but certain rules must be followed. Finally, some states allow memorials, but only for a specific period of time (typically three-six months). Review an overview of state laws to learn about your specific state’s requirements. 

What rules do memorials need to follow?

For states where roadside memorials are legal, such as Florida and West Virginia, there are specific rules family members must follow to keep these memorials safe. Some memorials, while well-intentioned, do more harm than good. As such, most states require these tributes to follow these protocols below:

  • Safe - First, they must be safe. Large, extravagant roadside memorials are a distraction to drivers. 
  • Environmentally-friendly - Though including things like balloons, art, and large signs might be beautiful, they are also harmful to certain environments. Many states require these memorials to avoid pollutants or other litter. 
  • State-approved signage - Some states, like Utah and Washington, allow family members to purchase state-approved signs in honor of the deceased. These usually share the name of the accident victim as well as a reminder to motorists to drive safely. 
  • Maintenance - The family needs to be responsible for maintaining the memorial and ensuring its in good shape unless it’s in one of the states that provide this service for purchased memorial markers. 

Even in states where these memorials are not approved, many local governments allow them to stay for a temporary amount of time. Because governments understand the family’s need to grieve the loss of a loved one, they’re not usually quick to remove these tributes. In the case that they are removed, a notice is left on the marker’s space to let the family know why. 

Alternatives to Roadside Memorials

While a roadside memorial is a great tribute, this isn’t the only way to honor a loved one after they’ve died. Many families find themselves wanting to do something significant after a roadside accident, and there are a lot of creative ways to honor someone even in states that don’t permit roadside memorials. 

  • Graveside tribute - While you’re not always allowed to create a roadside memorial, you can usually create something similar in the cemetery. Most cemeteries permit the decoration of headstones, and this is a welcome space for expressing the family’s grief. 
  • Memory board - A memory board is a highly-personal tribute to someone’s life and legacy. By creating a memory board, the entire family has a smaller memento for keeping their deceased loved one close. 
  • Donation - Because losing a loved one in a motor accident is often traumatic, donating to a motor safety organization brings the family peace. There are many local or natural safe driving foundations to give to in honor of the deceased loved one. 
  • Local garden or community space - One of the most important parts of a roadside memorial is the fact that it’s public and accessible to the community. Donating to or volunteering at a local garden or community space gives a similar feeling of togetherness. 
  • Online memorial - Roadside memorials, unfortunately, do not last forever. Aside from local governments removing them, they’re simply exposed to the elements. An online memorial doesn’t have to worry about that. By creating an online memorial for your loved one, you publish something long-lasting. 

When in doubt, research your state’s laws about roadside memorials. If they’re not an option, keep in mind that there are many ways to honor your loved one, even if they are less public. While the culture and symbolism of these roadside tributes are undoubtedly beautiful, families have a lot of options when it comes to finding peace after losing someone in a motor accident. 

A Roadside Impact

The next time you drive along a highway, keep an eye out for memorials. Sometimes they’re easy to overlook, but these highway messages are a reminder that the road is a dangerous place. We could all stand to drive a little more carefully to protect ourselves and others. 

Roadside memorials have a lengthy history in the United States, and they’re still a common site today. However, many states are also beginning new initiatives that allow surviving family members safer options for expressing their grief at the passing of a loved one. From memorial gardens to state-approved highway signs, these are all a way to show the importance of driving safely. 

Have you given any thought to your own memorial? What legacy will you leave? Start end-of-life planning to answer these questions and more. Though it might sound challenging, the hardest step is just getting started. 


Sources

  1. “Annual Global Road Crash Statistics.” Association for Safe International Road Travel. ASIRT.org
  2. Jipson, Art. “Breakdown of State Laws and Policies on Roadside Memorials.” The University of Dayton. NYT.com
  3. Reid, Amanda. “Private Memorials on Public Space: Roadside Crosses at the Intersection of the Free Speech Clause and the Establishment Clause.” Nebraska Law Review. 2013, Volume 91. UNL.edu