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Roadside memorials: How much is too much?

By Stan Finger

The Wichita Eagle

(MCT) In the hours following a deadly traffic collision in west Wichita early July 27, an impromptu memorial honoring the three people killed sprang up at Maple and Tracy.

The memorial included numerous flower arrangements, teddy bears -- even a cross made of fishing poles.

By the next morning, however, the memorial was gone. Motorists going through the intersection would have seen no reminders that a fatal collision had occurred there just the day before.

No one seems to know who removed the flowers, teddy bears and fishing poles -- or why. It may have been because of a complaint or because it was in a mowing crew's way, said Tom Stolz, director of the Metropolitan Area Building and Construction Department, in an e-mail response to questions.

But Kansas Highway Patrol Lt. Roger Baughman said removing the display was probably a good move if it was distracting.

"Some of them are such a distraction that it's dangerous," Baughman said. "I've seen some as big as totem poles. I've seen some that are 30 feet wide."

A memorial to three people killed in a wrong-way collision on K-254 has grown in the weeks since 16-year-old Dominic Stolfi, driving the wrong way in a Ford Explorer, collided with a Buick a half-mile east of the Butler County line east of Bel Aire on July 13. Both women in the Buick -- Lisa Hardy, 27, and Nancy Ross, 52 -- were killed.

Eric Stolfi, Dominic's father, said he put up three large white crosses across the ditch from the eastbound lanes. A brother-in-law added smaller crosses with the names of all three victims. Friends have added more decorations.

"I say a prayer every time we go past it," Stolfi said. "It helps, driving by there every day."

Still, Baughman said, he's concerned that large memorials to victims may become too much of a distraction for motorists.

"Everyone understands the grieving going on," he said. "The next thing is, how elaborate do you get?"

The Kansas Department of Transportation has no formal policy on the installation of memorials for crash victims on state highways, spokesman Tom Hein said.

"We don't encourage memorials on state highways," Hein said in an e-mail response to questions. "We have allowed small memorials on state right-of-way for a limited time with placement adjacent to the right-of-way boundary to allow room for maintenance and utility operations."

For nearly 14 years now, two small white crosses have marked the spot on K-96 a mile east of Yoder where Freddie and Treva Yoder were killed when their horse-drawn buggy was struck by a car as they returned from the Kansas State Fair in September 2000.

Baughman said those simple white crosses are an effective memorial.

"You see them and you're past them," he said. "It's not overbearing."

The concern, Baughman said, is that motorists might be so distracted by an elaborate memorial for a loved one that they end up being in a crash themselves. State highways such as K-96 and K-254 can be dangerous enough without the distraction of memorials that catch and hold the eye, he said.

"The saying is that if your eyes get drawn off the road, you're already behind" in reaction time should something unexpected happen, Baughman said.

A memorial to Dominic Green on K-96 south of South Hutchinson actually has lights on it, Reno County Sheriff Randy Henderson said in an e-mail response to questions. But the lights are powered by the sun, he said, and "they are faint at night."

A second memorial in west Wichita to Jake Hallacy, 26, Zachary Taylor, 26, and Emily Phillips, 21, is more modest than the first one. Flowers, a teddy bear and a floral arrangement in the shape of a cross surround a utility pole on the northwest corner of Maple and Tracy.

"Would a little cross do the same thing as an elaborate structure?" Baughman asked. "Probably the stuff that gets elaborate should be at the cemetery."

(c)2014 The Wichita Eagle