SACRAMENTO — Since her youngest son was killed by a drunk driver in 1983, Mary Anna Downing says it has been a family ritual to periodically place flowers around the three-foot white cross that marks the spot of his death in Arlington, Tex.
So after a drunk limousine driver plowed into the rear of a pickup truck on the Orange Freeway in Anaheim eight months later, killing another of her sons and crippling a friend for life, the Texas mother asked his friends to place an identical cross at that site.
Last July, on what would have been Jim Downing's 27th birthday, his close friend, Cindy Roy, 23, and her friend, Dan Calef, 28, put up the cross without permission from the California Department of Transportation. Hours later, Caltrans sent a worker to remove it.
Caltrans Under Pressure
Now, the yearlong dispute over Mary Anna Downing's request has spilled into the Legislature, where one Orange County Assembly member is trying to pressure Caltrans into allowing some sort of "fitting memorial" where Jim Downing died and another is trying to initiate a statewide program to place markers at the sites of deaths caused by drunk drivers.
Over Caltrans' objections, the Assembly Transportation Committee this month approved the statewide marker program proposed by Assemblywoman Doris Allen (R-Cypress) and sent the bill to the Ways and Means Committee, after amending it to ensure that the markers are not religious symbols.
But earlier this week, a resolution by Assemblyman Ross Johnson (R-La Habra) urging Caltrans to allow "an appropriate commemorative plaque" for the Downing family fell one vote short of approval.
Noting that Assemblyman Richard Robinson (D-Garden Grove), a co-sponsor, was absent when the vote was taken, Johnson predicted that he will have little trouble winning committee approval when he asks for another vote next week.
Johnson, who accused Caltrans of being "incredibly insensitive to the family," said he also will accept an amendment prohibiting a religious symbol.
Won't Insist on Cross
Downing, who said she merely wants to call attention to the dangers of drunk driving, said a plaque will serve that purpose just fine.
"I'm not going to insist on a cross, as much as I wanted to," Downing said. "I think the memorial might be better. . . . At least, that's my thinking now."
State Transportation Director Leo Trombatore said Caltrans is "sympathetic to the desire and feelings" of Jim Downing's loved ones but said that crosses or other markers on roadsides might distract drivers and cause accidents themselves.
With 500 drunk-driving deaths each year, the markers could clutter roadsides, particularly in urban areas, Caltrans officials say.
"Our policy is to keep objects along the highway to a minimum," Trombatore said in a letter to Allen.
But Allen said that policy is hypocritical, especially since Caltrans itself sponsored a yearlong "In Memoriam" sign program in 1982 to mark spots where its workers had been killed.
And, Johnson said, the spot where Downing's family and friends want to erect the cross--on a steep embankment 53 feet off the freeway--does not pose a safety hazard "by the wildest stretch of the imagination."
Both Downing and Dave Vaillette, the driver of the pickup in which he was riding on March 31, 1984, were thrown from the overturning vehicle after it was rammed from behind by a limousine going more than 90 m.p.h., investigators said.
Limousine driver Hugh Robinson, a moonlighting Anaheim paramedic with no previous arrests, was driving alone and was not injured. Robinson, now 30, was sentenced last April to a year in Orange County Jail, three years on probation and 300 hours of community service work in a paraplegic hospital.
The controversy over highway markers isn't new to California or to Orange County. For years, white crosses periodically have appeared along Laguna Canyon Road in Laguna Beach, presumably to make the point that the narrow, winding roadway, where there are scores of traffic mishaps each year, needs to be widened. Always, the crosses are eventually taken down.
The only public roadway in California where crosses have been allowed to remain is a desert access road leading to the Fort Irwin Army base in San Bernardino County. There, the approximately 15 white crosses marking the spots of traffic deaths were put up by the Army.
Almost no one uses the road except workers at the giant Army training center. Caltrans never gave permission for the program, but they've never objected to it either, a military spokesman said.
No State Has Program
Currently, no state has a statewide marker program like the one Allen wants to start in California. Trombatore said highway officials in Texas, Arizona and Montana--where memorial markers have appeared and been allowed to remain--have never encouraged them and in recent years have begun to discourage them.
However, some judges in Texas have ordered convicted drunk drivers to erect memorial crosses where their victims died. District Judge Ted Poe in Houston, who said he has been making such orders for about 1 1/2 years, said he has had "tremendous cooperation" from state and county highway authorities and police agencies.
"If the markers cause one potential drunk driver to stop and not get behind the wheel . . . the markers are worth it," Poe said.
Downing said the family put up the cross for her youngest son, Eddie, themselves. She said she never asked permission and, to her knowledge, no one has yet objected to the cross, which is alongside a highway on the outskirts of Arlington, a Fort Worth-Dallas suburb.