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Roadside Tributes Raise Safety Issue

Traffic: The memorials help ease families' pain, but officials fear people gathered at accident sites such as the one near Camarillo could get hit.

April 07, 2002|TIMOTHY HUGHES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In December, Paul Bonds watched his 14-year-old daughter Jennifer get hit by a car and die on Santa Rosa Road near Camarillo.

Every weekday since, Bonds has tended to a collection of flowers, balloons and candles that mark the site where she was killed.

"When you lose your daughter, your whole world changes," Bonds, 53, said as he stood at the makeshift roadside memorial with his son, two daughters and a few bystanders. "Everything she was and everything she will be is gone."

For the Bonds and others who have lost loved ones on state highways, these tributes serve to honor the victims while easing the pain of their families.

But the roadside memorials have thrust city and county officials into the unwitting roles of balancing respect for the dead with safety concerns and complaints that busy roadways are not the place for private grieving.

In the case of the Jennifer Bonds memorial, authorities have received numerous complaints that people gathered at the accident site have come dangerously close to getting hit by cars themselves, said Butch Britt, Ventura County deputy director of public works. The busy two-lane roadway stretches from the Ventura Freeway in Camarillo to Thousand Oaks.

The almost daily gatherings usually occur about 4:30 p.m., about the same time when the Camarillo High School student was struck by a car while jogging with her father. The driver of the vehicle was driving within the posted 55 mph speed limit and was not cited.

The decision over whether to remove the 4-month-old memorial is largely Britt's to make.

"It's a judgment call on my part, and I am trying to make the right decision," he said. "But I'm not real clear on an answer, and it's not, frankly, something I am anxious to do. I would feel more confident if Mr. Bonds would remove it on his own and put it on his property. [Memorials] are what cemeteries are for."

Faced with a similar dilemma last year, Thousand Oaks officials chose to set a time limit for roadside tributes. They acted after a spate of traffic fatalities involving teenagers was followed by a flurry of memorials.

Since August, city officials have enforced what is believed to be the only city-imposed restrictions on roadside memorials in the state. The policy places a 30-day time limit on memorials.

Thousand Oaks public works crews had grown concerned over the amount of debris--which includes everything from faded yearbook photos to deflated balloons--that eventually winds up scattered on city streets.

"We had complaints from motorists indicating that items were considered a safety hazard," said Hans Faber, a landscape maintenance supervisor who helped craft the new policy. "Residents complained they could not walk up and down the sidewalks."

Under the policy, sheriff's officials notify the affected families that after 30 days they must remove all memorial items. If they fail to comply, city crews will be called in to do the work, Faber said.

All items that may have value -- photographs, candles and other mementos--are kept in a city warehouse for 14 days. Everything else is thrown away immediately, he said.

Families and friends of the dead have criticized the effort as an example of bureaucracy run amok. They have asked how one determines an appropriate time limit on something as personal and painful as a person's right to grieve.

"I just think it was a very insensitive thing to do," said Thousand Oaks resident Kim Whittington, referring to the city's plan.

Whittington's 17-year-old daughter Stephanie was killed last July after the teenager lost control of her car and spun into oncoming traffic near Hillcrest Drive and Citation Way.

In addition to a memorial, the site became a regular gathering place for students from nearby Newbury Park High School, Whittington said. The memorial was removed by the city in August.

Whittington keeps some items retrieved from the crash site in Stephanie's bedroom. She also keeps her daughter's cremated remains in her home and has replanted flowers left behind at the Hillcrest Drive memorial.

"I am not pleased with what [Thousand Oaks] did," she said. "They want the city to maintain a certain image and they don't want people to think anything bad" can happen.

City and sheriff's officials said they had no choice but to take some action. They said there were at least five memorials on Thousand Oaks streets in the first half of 2001 after several teenagers died in separate crashes.

Some were maintained with an almost reverential care, said Sheriff's Sgt. Patti Salas, traffic supervisor for the local police agency. Others, including the one for Stephanie, would become the site of impromptu gatherings near busy streets, she said.

Salas said the city's new policy "is not about wiping someone's memory away," but about the safety and welfare of others.

"It's a matter of trying to maintain the streets while making sure the mourners don't become casualties themselves," Salas said. "But we have to be sensitive."

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