In Memory

States create Web sites for families of highway traffic accident victims to memorialize those who are gone.

by / November 1, 2004
We've all seen white crosses or other shrines along the side of a road or highway marking somebody's death. Those memorials mean something to the people who loved the men, women or children killed in those traffic accidents, and could teach the living a lesson if they could speak.

At least two states have given a voice to those shrines. The South Carolina Highway Patrol and Montana's Department of Transportation gave families of victims of fatal traffic accidents a modern forum through which to express their grief: memorial Web sites.

Big Sky Highways
The Montana Department of Transportation (MDT) created its "Remembrance ..." Web site on July 1, 2004, said Dave Galt, director of the MDT.

If a family wants to create a memorial, the Remembrance Web site provides a PDF submission form that must be printed, filled out and sent to the State Highway Traffic Safety Office. The one-page form asks for general information about the deceased and the location of the fatal accident, and requests testimonial text. Photo submissions also are encouraged.

"We've had a lot of inquiries," Galt said. "The response has been good. I was a little concerned we might get some negative feedback, but we haven't."

Galt said his concern came from worry that people might perceive the Web site as too intrusive into their private lives or a as waste of taxpayer money. The idea for the Remembrance Web site came from a member of the MDT's technical team, he said, after he asked the team to propose ways to improve the Highway Safety program's Web presence.

"I challenged staff to come up with ideas that cover all sorts of things and could go on the Web site," he said. "One of our technical folks was looking at different Web sites across the country and saw [the South Carolina Highway Patrol Web site] and asked me, 'Have you ever heard of this? Is this something you'd be interested in?'"

This is clearly a new area for e-government, usually defined as putting payment options or other bureaucratic necessities online. A government agency providing a way for a family to express its sorrow over the untimely death of a loved one creates a degree of intimacy not found in normal electronic service offerings.

"I'm head of the highway department," he said. "People die on the highways, and sometimes it just bothers me. What can we do to help? What can we do to make this better? What am I not doing? I've wanted in the past -- but I've refrained from doing it -- to express my sympathy to a family when this happens on the highway."

The death of a loved one is personal and private, but making it public through a memorial Web site gives families the chance to allow the outside world to know that person.

Galt said the MDT has been careful in deciding how to make people aware of the site and let them know the state is willing to put submitted testimonials on the Remembrance Web site.

"How do you reach out? When do you reach out?" he said. "If I was on the phone [to a family] three days later, I'd look bad. We talked about that, and we decided we wanted to wait 90 days and then reach out. We'll send a letter out to express our condolences and offer this [Web site] as a way to help."

Faces Instead of Numbers
The South Carolina Highway Patrol's "In Memory Of ..." Web site was launched in December 2003, said Sherri Iacobelli, media/community relations coordinator of the Highway Patrol. As with the Montana Web site, families can post a photo of a deceased loved one, as well as any length message about the person and his or her death.

Some entries include poetry, and more than one warns readers of the perils of not wearing seat belts. South Carolina highways see 1,000 deaths per year, according to the "In Memory Of ..." Web site. Iacobelli said there's no time limit for families to submit memorials for a family member who perished in an accident, and the Web site contains 70 testimonials, some dating back to 1980.

She said the idea came from a visit by a mother whose son died in a single-car traffic accident -- the mother offered to help the Highway Patrol by speaking at news conferences or educational events about the importance of wearing seat belts.

"After talking with her, I realized there were so many families out there like her, who were grieving and looking for some kind of outlet, some way to remember their family members," Iacobelli said. "A lot of people view the Highway Patrol as just coming in, investigating the collision and leaving. What we want to get across is that we care beyond the investigation of the collision.

"We're here to save lives, and we try to do as many proactive public information events as we can to educate people about highway safety," she said. "One of the most effective ways to do that is to let them hear from people who've experienced these losses. We've actually created a network of families who are helping us get the word out there."

That network speaks at news conferences, and visits high schools or other venues to speak publicly about their losses and how safe driving can help other people avoid tragic losses through traffic accidents, Iacobelli said.

Initially families were notified of the testimonial Web site's existence through a sympathy card sent out by the commander of the Highway Patrol, though not a lot of postings came as a result. That changed with media coverage of the Web site, Iacobelli said.

"Since then, submissions have been regular," she said. "The site has gotten built up over the last six months or so. The feedback we've received has been so positive from the families and from the general public who've gone to the site and read some of the testimonials. They were touched that we did it, and that there's a way to remember these victims.

"Most people have no idea of the scope of the problem on our highways," she said. "When they visit this site -- put names and faces together -- it makes a big impact. Rather than just saying 1,000 people die every year on our highways, to get to see some of those faces and hear those stories, it's heartbreaking."
Shane Peterson Associate Editor