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Roadside memorials a tricky matter for mourners, officials

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POSTED April 16, 2017 10:45 p.m.

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — As roadside memorials become more common on roadways in the wake of fatal crashes, efforts to regulate these makeshift sites can be fraught with peril for lawmakers who must balance public concerns with sensitivity for those dealing with loss.

The memorials can quickly become eyesores or cause traffic hazards, as flowers wilt and items at the scene are blown into streets.

In a bid to address those issues, many states now allow specific types of memorials or set limits on how long they can stay. In New Jersey, proposed legislation would establish a roadside accident memorial program, allowing a victim’s relative to pay for a sign honoring the person who died.

“The problem at present (with roadside memorials) is that they often involve taking over public property for personal use without approval,” said Bob Andrzejczak, who is sponsoring the measure along with fellow Democrats Nicholas Chiaravalloti and R. Bruce Land. “With a formal program, New Jersey can eliminate any discrepancies about who owns the sign and who’s responsible for maintaining the area.”

But some residents, like Regina Sullivan, say there are better options.

“If a memorial is causing problems, tell the person’s family and they can do something about it. Otherwise, leave it alone” said Sullivan, a Toms River woman who lost her mother in 2013 when the car she was riding in struck a tree. Sullivan placed photos of her mother there along with a small religious figurine her mom had given her years ago, while others added flowers and handwritten notes. Most of the items remain there to this date.

“Unless it’s somehow putting people at risk, and I mean real risk, not just some bureaucrat’s perceived risk, I don’t see what harm these memorials could cause,” Sullivan said.

Officials say complaints about memorials from the public are infrequent, and usually are raised with their local police.

Some states — including Arizona, North Carolina and Wisconsin — had banned the memorials at one time, mostly for safety reasons. But many have since eased their rules, noting that memorials are becoming more common along with concerns raised by people who said they were angered when memorials had been unexpectedly removed.

New Jersey’s Department of Transportation currently works with police to determine whether a memorial poses a danger to the public due to its location. If so, it will be removed.

Meanwhile, transportation officials will attempt to contact family members to advise them the memorial has been removed for safety reasons and provide them the chance to retrieve items and possibly relocate it.

A professor of critical social thought in Massachusetts says roadside memorials show that leaving objects at the place of death is a way for those still alive to connect with those who died.

“Since such deaths are sudden, the initial response is a need to commune with the dead, so to speak, and leaving objects is one way to establish a connection,” said Karen Remmler, of Mount Holyoke College.

Marcy Walker, who created a memorial to honor her 16-year-old son after he was killed in a car crash in 2015, said putting it together was “very cathartic” for her. The memorial, which featured her son’s Little League photos and a copy of “Star Wars,” his favorite movie, remained in place for a few months before she removed it herself.

“I was able to relive his accomplishments, remember the things he really liked and were important to him, and show people who he was,” the Madison, Wisconsin, woman said. “I like to think that when people saw the memorial, it made them think about the people who are special to them and maybe even made them take pause.”

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