Getting Personal

Getting Personal

by / November 1, 2004
Government always has been part of people's lives, usually through common transactions, such as paying taxes or issuing drivers' licenses.

For several governments, though, the relationship is getting a lot more personal. Montana and South Carolina created memorial Web sites for families of people killed in traffic accidents on state highways. Families can submit pictures and testimonials about their loved ones for publication on the Web site.

Reading families' testimonials while preparing to write the story on what Montana and South Carolina have done, which appears in this issue of Government Technology, has made those white crosses I see on the side of highways or interstates much more real. Those crosses have stories to tell, but they were unable to speak -- until now.

Death and mourning are very personal, and our society still seems ill at ease with them. These two states decided to go where governments don't usually go. It's one thing to send somebody a letter telling them their property taxes are due. It's a completely different matter to send a family a letter expressing sympathy over the loss of a loved one and offering an outlet to express their grief.

On a personal note, I very much wanted to write this story. Several years ago, my wife's younger sister was killed in a traffic accident in Manhattan Beach, Calif. Friends and family created a small shrine at the base of a light pole on one corner of the intersection where the accident occurred.

Several times, someone tore down the shrine -- which consisted of votive candles, photos, poems and flowers -- and threw away all of the intensely personal messages grieving friends left there. I rebuilt that shrine twice myself.

I remember how much that memorial meant to my wife and her sister's friends. When I came across what Montana and South Carolina have done, it touched a nerve. This is important for government to do -- being unafraid to acknowledge personal tragedy and reach out to families.

The testimonials on the two states' Web sites are raw missives about the pain of losing somebody in such a way. Often, families admonish readers on just how important it is to wear a seat belt. It's hard to ignore the pointed reality of those testimonials, and such a message is far more powerful than a cable TV ad sponsored by the Department of Transportation.

Memorial Web sites like this could make it so nobody has to go to a street corner to rebuild a memorial someone tore apart. I can't tell you how much pain my wife felt when she saw the remnants of something she and her sister's friends created out of love scattered at the base of the light pole.

If only one person can avoid that, it's worth it.
Shane Peterson Associate Editor