Some roadside memorials are not legal — here’s how to stay within the law

A roadside memorial with a white cross and flowers has sat on the side of an exit ramp for Interstate 64 exit 238 for about three years. VDOT says stopping on the side of the interstate to set up, visit, or maintain a memorial is a safety hazard and illegal, although it is unclear whether this particular memorial is considered to be on the interstate. (WYDaily/Sarah Fearing)
A roadside memorial with a white cross and flowers has sat on the side of an exit ramp for Interstate 64 exit 238 for about three years. VDOT says stopping on the side of the interstate to set up, visit, or maintain a memorial is a safety hazard and illegal, although it is unclear whether this particular memorial is considered to be on the interstate. (Southside Daily/Sarah Fearing)

Every day, thousands of vehicles travel east and west on Interstate 64 in Hampton Roads. Cars and trucks fly by patches of woods, fender benders and blown-out tires daily, all just another part of the daily commute.

Dotted along the roadside, there are also other, more somber sights: Roadside memorials.

For some, the grieving process may include creating a memorial for their loved one in a special place — or in the case of some crash-related deaths, where the crash happened.

So, how does it work? Can anyone put up a roadside memorial?

Can they be taken down?

A homemade roadside memorial could be removed if it’s placed within the right of way — a government-owned buffer around a roadway that varies in size — or if litter cleanup crews pick it up, said Brittany McBride Nichols, a Virginia Department of Transportation spokeswoman.

VDOT considers it a safety hazard to stop on the side of the interstate to set up, visit or maintain a memorial.

Stopping by the roadside is also illegal.

“In the end, while we are sensitive to the needs of those wanting to honor the memory of their loved ones, this policy was put in place to keep our roadways safer for those they left behind and other motorists,” McBride Nichols said. “All in the hopes of avoiding any further tragedy at that location and reducing the need for the memorials in the first place.”

Generally, however, VDOT leaves roadside memorials alone if they are not a safety hazard and do not impede maintenance or construction activities.

“With that said, the Code of Virginia does prohibit these memorials and VDOT reserves the right to remove them at any time as necessary,” McBride Nichols said.

An alternative

VDOT offers an alternative to homemade memorial signs, although it could be more expensive.

“Drive Safely in Memory Of …” signs can be erected along the side of the road with a permit from VDOT. The sign permit lasts for two years, although the permit can be extended by one-year increments if requested.

The permit application is free to the customer, but residents are responsible for the cost of fabrication.

McBride Nichols said there are about 14 “In Memory Of” signs in its Hampton Roads district.

The applicant must also order the sign through an outside company; VDOT no longer fabricates the signs. VDOT also has designated specifications for the signs to ensure uniformity, but each sign features the deceased’s name.

VDOT will install the signs.

“Prior to installation, VDOT staff also scout out an appropriate location and often try to place the signs behind guardrail where possible to protect the sign,” McBride Nichols said.

To learn more about roadside memorials, visit the VDOT memorial signs webpage.

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John Mangalonzo (john@localvoicemedia.com) is the managing editor of Local Voice Media’s Virginia papers – WYDaily (Williamsburg), Southside Daily (Virginia Beach) and HNNDaily (Hampton-Newport News). Before coming to Local Voice, John was the senior content editor of The Bellingham Herald, a McClatchy newspaper in Washington state. Previously, he served as city editor/content strategist for USA Today Network newsrooms in St. George and Cedar City, Utah. John started his professional journalism career shortly after graduating from Lyceum of The Philippines University in 1990. As a rookie reporter for a national newspaper in Manila that year, John was assigned to cover four of the most dangerous cities in Metro Manila. Later that year, John was transferred to cover the Philippine National Police and Armed Forces of the Philippines. He spent the latter part of 1990 to early 1992 embedded with troopers in the southern Philippines as they fought with communist rebels and Muslim extremists. His U.S. journalism career includes reporting and editing stints for newspapers and other media outlets in New York City, California, Texas, Iowa, Utah, Colorado and Washington state.