In a policy reversal, the Georgia Department of Transportation will now allow standardized signs memorializing fatal traffic accident victims to be posted along federal and state highway right of ways in Georgia.
“We believe this will appropriately address the desires of an individual’s family and friends to note their passing while allowing the department to maintain safety and uniformity along our roadways,” Georgia DOT Commissioner Vance C. Smith Jr. said in a news release.
GDOT will offer the 15-inch, round white signs with the black-lettered message “Drive safely; in memory” with the deceased’s name printed underneath for a cost of $100. The fee, according to GDOT, funds the cost of fabricating and installing a sign. Approved GDOT signs would remain in place for one year, GDOT officials said. At the end of the 12-month posting period, GDOT will remove the sign and present it to the sign’s sponsor.
The signs will be placed as close to the accident site as possible, according to GDOT.
As for homemade memorials erected on federal and state highway right-of-ways by grieving families, GDOT has had a general policy to remove them if they impede motorists’ vision or pose a traffic hazard, according to GDOT officials.
“It’s a safety issue,” GDOT spokesman David Spear said. “Some of the homemade memorials get pretty elaborate; there’s been some made of materials that could be harmful if struck by vehicles. We also don’t want groups of people gathering at roadsides exposing themselves to danger or becoming a distraction to drivers. There already are so many distractions for drivers these days.”
In 2003, in Liberty County, the family of a 17-year-old crash victim had their homemade roadside memorial on Highway 84 near Holmestown Road taken down by GDOT numerous times. Liberty County High School cheerleader Emily Burgess was killed in an Aug. 12, 2003, car accident on her way home from having team photographs taken.
When contacted by phone, Burgess’s stepfather, Bill James, declined to comment about GDOT’s new memorial signs, but did confirm the family had put up a memorial for their daughter “four or five times” more than seven years ago, only for it to be removed each time by GDOT.
“We understand a lot of people were upset at the notion we were going to be running out and taking down homemade memorials,” Spear said. “That’s not what we’re doing. We’ll continue to be tolerant of that situation, but at some point we’re going to get more deliberate about picking those things up. We’re trying to avoid further tragedies at the same location.”
Spear said GDOT maintenance crews may move memorials when they mow right of ways and will replace them if they do not pose a hazard. The department’s crews try to be “mindful of the circumstances,” he said.
According to Spear, GDOT has already had “a fair number of people” request the new memorial signs.
“We hope people will gravitate to the new ones over time,” Spear said.
To request a sign, relatives and friends — with approval of the deceased’s immediate family — must submit a written application, an official accident report and $100 fee to GDOT’s maintenance engineer. Forms and contact information can be accessed at www.dot.ga.gov/doingbusiness/PoliciesManuals/pap/Documents/Policies/6160-9.pdf.