At their most basic level, roadside memorials mark the spot where someone lost a friend or family member on Alaska's highways. They are a reminder, often lovingly and carefully maintained, that something tragic and important happened at that spot. For many, they are a comfort.
But they do more than that. These roadside memorials serve as warning signs that something went wrong at that spot at some point in the past, and perhaps that a little extra caution is warranted there.
However, the state Department of Transportation is worried roadside memorials have a more menacing side as well, that they aren't safe and may actually distract drivers from the business of operating a vehicle. So the department has started the Memorial Sign Program, which eventually will completely replace these so-called nonregulation memorials and replace them with state-produced signs.
The program, which has already kicked off in other parts of the state but won't make its way here for months, allows friends or family members to sponsor a memorial sign for someone fatally injured in a highway accident by submitting an application to the state.
Signs memorializing the victim of a drunk driver or signs for a drunk driver who was killed feature white lettering on a blue background and the words, ''Please don't drink and drive.'' Below the sign is a plaque saying either ''In memory of'' and the victim's name or ''Sponsored by'' and the family's name. Signs for victims of accidents not caused by drinking and driving look similar but read, ''Please drive safely,'' with a memorial plaque below.
Although the plan for these state-sponsored signs originally included charging families a fee, these cost nothing. They can remain in place for 10 years and will be the only memorials allowed within the state highway right of way.
The program is in response to the fact that such family-maintained roadside memorials are technically against state law -- the same state law that regulates all signs on Alaska's roads and highways.
It is hard to believe these family-made and maintained memorials are any more of a distraction to drivers than any other state-approved signs on our roadways. Should a sign pointing out a highway exit or delineating the way to find gas and food be considered a driving hazard as well? Clearly not. And if roadside memorials are distracting, why wouldn't these state-approved signs be distracting as well?
Roadsides throughout the Interior are speckled with the makeshift crosses, flowers and mementos of grieving families. They want to mark the spot where their loved one died, and warn other about the dangers -- and in most cases they want to do that in a very personal way that serves as a tribute to the person they lost.
Cookie-cutter signs produced by the state simply miss the mark.
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