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Published: Monday, 9/10/2001 - Updated: 1 year ago

Markers raise many questions

BY ROBIN ERB
BLADE STAFF WRITER

In the days after his sister's death, George Hendricks, Jr., spent time by himself in the back bedroom of his home, tearfully making a large white cross and draping a gold-colored linen over it.

“I had to do something for her,” he said, referring to the shoulder-high roadside memorial that still stands along Dorr Street where Dorothy Hendricks, 42, died.

“I couldn't just let people forget her,” Mr. Hendricks said.

It is because of where Ms. Hendricks was killed - inside Toledo's city limits - that her brother's memorial remains nearly two years after the car in which she was a passenger was struck by a drug suspect fleeing police.

The Ohio Department of Transportation prohibits such memorials on its highways outside local police jurisdictions.

The problem: Some markers are so large or ornate that they are distractions for other motorists. Others are made of materials, such as cement or brick, that can become airborne - and deadly if they are struck by a vehicle out of control, ODOT spokesman Joe Rutherford said.

“It's emotional. We understand that the intent is to honor loved ones,” he said.

But ODOT's is responsible for making highways as safe as possible, Mr. Rutherford added.

“I think they [family members who erect such memorials] understand that we have a job too,” he said.

Several states recently have begun looking at policies, or the lack thereof, over roadside memorials. Though there is no official count, some police and transportation agencies report that the markers appear to be growing in number, size, and permanence.

Last month, after more than a year of emotional debate, the Texas Department of Transportation tweaked its long-standing policy on roadside markers. Previously, the state had limited memorials for victims of drunken drivers.

But relatives and friends of other motorists killed on Texas roads complained they could not have the same tangible connection to their deceased loved ones.

Department officials suggested providing a small, blue sign at the site of each fatal accident. The signs would include the name of the deceased and a small cross or other symbol.

Then, others argued that the signs would violate the separation of church and state or that they lacked the personal touch that grieving loved ones seek.

Finally, the department settled on a compromise: A policy finalized last month allows memorials for anyone killed on the roadways but limits them by size and materials, said Richard Kirby, director of maintenance operations at the transportation department. “It's a very sensitive subject,” he said.

Local law enforcement agrees. So far, Toledo police have reported no accidents because of the dozen or so memorials around town, traffic Sgt. Paul Kerschbaum said. “Unless they become a driving distraction, we have no problem with them,” he said.

Lucas County sheriff's Capt. Ron Berente agrees: “We try to use some compassion. People are still mourning, so we kind of overlook the little things unless they become a traffic hazard,” he said.

Mr. Hendricks, who each week tends to his sister's memorial, believes the flower-adorned cross at the side of Dorr, west of Byrne Road, will prompt drivers to slow down and prevent more accidents.

Maybe they won't know the details of her death, but a cross can remind them of the fragility of life, he said: “I want it all to have meant something.”



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