On Sunday in the pouring rain, dozens of activists and family members of people who have been killed in traffic crashes erected memorials at 135 locations throughout Portland. The effort was part of the national World Day of Remembrance to End Traffic Deaths. The ghostly white silhouettes were ziptied to sign poles adjacent to some of the most dangerous major streets in the region — most of them owned and managed by the Oregon Department of Transportation.
No more than 24 hours later ODOT maintenance crews started taking some of them down.
One of the event organizers said at first she was angered, but after contacting ODOT she now plans to remove most of them this weekend.
Kristi Finney with Families for Safe Streets, whose son Dustin was killed by a drunk driver while he biked on SE Division in 2011, didn’t ask for ODOT’s permission prior to the event. “We suspected they would take them down if we affixed them to their property,” she told us via email yesterday.
Even so, Finney added, “I feel dismay that out of all the priorities ODOT should have, removing these memorials of people killed on their unsafe roads was made a top one. Really, they couldn’t even leave them through the outbound rush hour?”
Oregon Walks Executive Director Noel Mickelberry told us she also wasn’t surprised. Her group gave ODOT a heads-up prior to erecting the memorials, but they too didn’t ask permission or get a specific permit.
ODOT’s spokesman Don Hamilton confirmed for us that maintenance crews have removed four of the memorials so far — one on SE Powell Blvd and three along 82nd. In a phone interview this morning Hamilton said ODOT is obligated by law to remove, “Things that are causing distraction for people on the road or are obscuring important safety information or creating some kind of safety hazard.”
As to these specific memorials, Hamilton said ODOT understands the emotions at play but the agency has no choice. “These are sincere and heartfelt gestures. We appreciate their effort to convey a safety message; but we have obligations we have to follow.” Hamilton noted that memorials were “very much in line” with similar safety messages ODOT tries to conveny.
So far just four of the memorials have been removed but it’s likely more will come down as maintenance crews come across them. Hamilton said ODOT hasn’t received citizen complaints yet. The first four were removed after a maintenance staffer drove by one that was placed on a median. “He was driving home,” Hamilton explained, “And it started him. It was alarming.”
“Another one [of the memorials] was on a sidewalk and it was facing right onto the street,” Hamilton continued. “That’s going to cause someone to stop. It can really cause confusion.”
When I last talked to Hamilton about this issue in 2011 he said, “State highways are not a bulletin board.”
Advocates have twice tried to pass a new state law that would allow permanent signs along roadways to memorialize traffic victims. It has failed both times, most recently in 2008.
Finney has since been in touch with Hamilton about the issue and they are making arrangements to return the cut-out figures. Finney has also agreed to remove all the other figures off ODOT-controlled roads this weekend. She’s happy with the impact they’ve already had. “This is more than I hoped for,” she shared today on Twitter. “We never intended for them to be left up indefinitely.”
— Jonathan Maus, (503) 706-8804 – firstname.lastname@example.org