We all see them: Roadside memorials, crosses, “ghost bikes” and other reminders of roadside fatalities. When a roadside death occurs family and community often gather immediately at the site of the crash, bringing flowers and candles, mementos and photos, hugs and tears to remember the dead and comfort the living.

“The spread of spontaneous roadside memorials to mark the site of fatal traffic accidents in the United States is a relatively new phenomenon” writes one Wikipedia contributor on the subject. I shudder at this author’s use of the objectionable phrase “fatal traffic accidents.” Most experts on the subject (including surviving family members) more accurately describe these fatal events as “road crashes” to differentiate between the air of happenstance that accompanies the concept of an “accident” and the crushing reality of what are usually preventable fatal road crashes.

The accuracy of the rest of this ’pedia-pundit’s claim is dubious at best and a cautionary tale of Internet accuracy at worst. I remember seeing them as a small child, riding all over the country with my parents, and I can assure you that I am not a relatively new phenomenon. 

What is relatively new, at least in California, is the erection of state-sanctioned and maintained signage marking the location of road fatalities. I had heard about this but I’ve never seen one, so I wanted to know more about it. This is what I learned: It’s not easy to get a state-sanctioned sign.

The “Victim’s Memorial Sign Program” was initiated on Jan. 01, 2001, after passage of Assembly Bill 695. As of January 2006, only 29 signs had been erected statewide under the program. Despite minimal participation, a 2006 memorandum to the Legislature recommended against grandfathering the program out of existence citing, among other things, the healing benefits that victims’ families may gain from the signs. 

In order to fit within the rather narrow window of applicability one must first, and tragically foremost, be the immediate family member of someone who has died at the hands of a driver under the influence of drugs or alcohol. 

The death must have occurred as the result of a road crash on a state highway. 

The offending driver must be convicted of second-degree murder or gross vehicular manslaughter (or un-prosecutable due to death or mental incompetence). 

You must pay Caltrans $1,000 for administration, installation and maintenance of the sign. The sign will only be maintained for seven years. According to Caltrans Media Relations Manager Mark Dinger, after seven years the signs may be removed if they are damaged or if they impede other improvement projects, but at the end of the seven years Caltrans does not remove the signs as a rule.

According to Dinger, permits for the memorial sign program are handled locally within each Caltrans district. Since the program’s inception District 7 (which includes the Pasadena area) has processed a total of six memorial sign requests. The closest to Pasadena is on the 101 freeway near the White Oak off ramp in Encino. It honors Taylor Moss.

Moss was a 19-year-old college student who died on Nov. 1, 2009, after being struck in a head-on collision with a wrong-way drunk driver. In June 2011 the driver was sentenced to 18 years for gross vehicular manslaughter. The permit for the memorial sign was submitted on Oct. 3, 2011, nearly two years after the fatal road crash.

It is Caltrans policy to remove unsanctioned memorials from state highways as they feel that impromptu roadside memorials may actually act as a distraction for motorists. On local roads, memorials are often left in place for a period of time depending on the location and other factors, including local ordinances and official or unofficial policies. 

The intersection at Derby Street and Warring Street in Berkeley has been unofficially renamed “Zachary’s Corner” after an anonymous citizen placed a replica street sign where Zachary Michael Cruz was killed in a pedestrian vs. auto road crash in 2009. It has been over seven years since my daughter and I placed the first candle and bouquet of flowers at that sad intersection. Zachary’s Corner has become a constant, bittersweet and haunting reminder of the permanence of road crash fatalities. 

 For me, when I see a lonely cross on the side of the road, or a copse of flowers surrounded by prayer candles at an intersection I relive the immediacy of our family’s loss and I know without a doubt that there are tears being shed anew for yet another victim of a senseless loss.