Roadside memorials hold their ground, are allowed to remain - Ahwatukee Foothills News: Safe Driving

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Roadside memorials hold their ground, are allowed to remain

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Posted: Friday, September 23, 2016 6:00 am

Hundreds if not thousands of people drive past a touching roadside memorial to “Kathy” near Baseline and Kyrene roads in Tempe, and probably very few even notice it.

Kathy Price’s memorial doesn’t appear to bother anyone. With artificial flowers and a small “slow” sign decorating a wire fence, the memorial resembles a bush from the blur created by someone driving by at 40 mph.

But upon closer inspection, it is clear that a grieving man named Robert loved Price very much, even though a plaque written on a flat rock does not list either of their last names or how Kathy died. It does say she died on May 24, 2014.

“God Bless, in Loving Memory. I will forever miss you. And never forget,” Robert wrote on the rock, which sits at the base of metal cross. A stuffed animal, a little dust-covered bear, hangs from the cross.

Det. Lily Duran, a Tempe police spokeswoman, said that Kathy Price, 54, died after she was stuck by a car while crossing Baseline.

Memorials like Price’s are a frequent reaction by family and friends after deaths caused by traffic accidents or slayings. They recently gained more attention because of a flap in Pinal County.

The Arizona Department of Transportation recently announced a more sensitive policy after angering family members by removing memorials along State Road 177 and U.S. 60.

Pete Rios, a Pinal County supervisor and a longtime legislator, lodged complaints with Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey’s office after the memorials disappeared. One of them honored the memory of Carmen Rios, Pete Rios’ sister, who was killed by a drunk driver in 2000.

Rios said he was appalled when he started getting calls from people from all over the state after ADOT crews swept away crosses that honored the memory of their loved ones in Pinal County, sometimes for decades.

But he praised ADOT for working with him on the new policy, which attempts to protect grieving families while maintaining public safety.

Rios said the memorials are important to remember loved ones and also remind drivers to slow down, stop texting and observe traffic rules.

“We would always say a silent prayer,” Rios said when he passed his sister’s memorial. “It would remind me of things we did as kids. It was a pleasant thing as well to remember your loved ones in a different light.”

But ADOT’s view of memorials has changed since meeting with Rios. The agency now wants to strike a delicate balance between honoring accident victims and maintaining the safety of state roads. Details of the new policy are listed at azdot.gov/memorials.

“Our policy once was to remove everything” from ADOT right-of-way along state roads, said Steve Elliott, an ADOT spokesman.

Under the new approach, “we want to honor the families’ need to express their grief,” he said. “We want to have a conversation.”

But the new policy has several restrictions. It requires grieving family members to obtain permission from a district engineer before placing a memorial and also puts limits on the size, design and location. Some of those rules would prevent family members from going too far by mounting memorials with a concrete base, creating a hazard.

Noting that it is often difficult to identify the person being honored, ADOT also is asking those who have put up the memorials to notify the district engineer. That way, ADOT workers can save a memorial for family members if they determine it has to be moved because of safety or maintenance issues.

It would appear ADOT’s new policy would have little impact on developed state highways in the East Valley, but officials all say they are trying to strike the same delicate balance between respecting a grieving family’s wishes and public safety.

Elliott said it is highly unlikely that memorials would be allowed along freeways, for fear of creating a distraction for drivers or a reason for drivers to stop, posing another hazard.

Other state highways, such as Arizona 87 through Mesa and Chandler, fall under the jurisdiction of cities. One notable exception might be Pecos Road, which now falls under state jurisdiction.

But eventually, Pecos Road is scheduled to become the South Mountain Freeway, if it surmounts legal hurdles. At least two lonely memorials sit along Pecos in Ahwatukee.

The Ahwatukee memorials include a broken white cross with a broken picture frame near 17th Avenue and Pecos. Artificial flowers attached to a chain-link fence near the 40th Street Park and Ride station appear to be remnants of another memorial.

The ADOT policy, however, is still more restrictive than any of the cities in the East Valley and more restrictive than Phoenix, as well.

“We are very sensitive to this issue,” said Monica Hernandez, a spokeswoman for the Phoenix Department of Transportation, adding that a memorial normally would not be moved unless it blocks a sidewalk or blocks the view of a street sign.

Amanda Nelson, a spokeswoman for Tempe’s Transportation Department, said Tempe’s policy gives the city the right to remove a memorial after 90 days. She said that doesn’t happen unless there is a safety issue.

A memorial with solar lights sits along Arizona 587

In the rare instance when a memorial needs to be removed, Tempe will preserve the memorial and attempt to return it to a traffic accident victim’s family.

“It hasn’t been a problem,” Nelson said. “It respects the families and ensures safety.”

Amy McConnell, a Mesa transportation spokeswoman, said Mesa has a policy that does not allow permanent memorials in city rights-of-way. She said temporary memorials are allowed for two weeks “out of respect for family and friends.”

Mesa allows an 18-inch white cross decorated with flowers, according to the policy.

But in practice, a memorial could remain indefinitely if there are no complaints and it causes no problems, McConnell said.

“We have the policy in place, but we don’t go out actively searching,” she said.

Chandler, Gilbert and Phoenix have no formal policy on roadside memorials, removing them only if they create problems. Those cities also will move memorials a slight distance if they block a sign or a sidewalk.

“We do everything we can to respect this as part of the grieving process,” said Matt Burdick, a Chandler spokesman. “If it’s not causing a safety problem, we leave it alone.”

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