One sign at a time

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Bouquets of flowers and bright green balloons adorned a bright blue roadside memorial sign at the corner of 118th Place and Sheridan Boulevard, where Jenna Breen's friends and family gathered on St. Patrick’s Day to celebrate her 23rd birthday.

Breen, a 21-year-old former Arvada resident, was struck and killed by a drunk driver at the intersection in the early morning hours of Saturday, Jan. 14, 2012, as she returned home from a late-night shift at a restaurant less than two blocks away.

Her mother, Gail Parrish, said the emotional scars from her daughter’s death will never fully heal but explained that the memorial sign is a testament to her daughter’s desire to help others.

It is mission that she said she hopes motorists will heed when they see the adage in bold letters above her daughter’s name: Don’t Drink and Drive.

“It’s hard to see your child’s name up there, but it does give a sense of hope that it will increase awareness and puts a face to a name,” Parrish said.

Breen’s roadside memorial sign — like hundreds of others across the state — are a stark reminder about the consequences of impaired driving and have become a driving force for a cause that has created a mixture of support and concern from residents and local officials.

Jennifer Clouse, a Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) Colorado victim services specialist, said only about 13 cities and counties across the state currently have a roadside memorial sign program in place.

“I think it serves two purposes and the first is for people to see the signs and to be reminded that there are people who are dying because of drunk driving,” Clouse said. “A lot of times victims’ families also want to make sure that their loved one is not forgotten and didn’t die in vain, so there is that hope that maybe someone gets the message not to drink because of their loved one’s death.”

According to the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) website, roadside memorial sign programs in the state date back to Nov. 1, 1994, when the state Legislature passed a bill to commemorate victims of driving under the influence (DUI)-related crashes.

The signage program law was extended about a decade later on May 20, 2004, to also commemorate other impaired driving crash victims, including those killed in non-alcohol or drug-related accidents.

The largest program, Clouse said, is currently run by CDOT, which allows roadside memorial signs to be erected on most state highways.

In most cases, Clouse said she usually helps victims’ families fill out and submit a memorial sign application that must meet several requirements, including a conviction of the driver who caused the fatal DUI crash, a toxicology report analysis, written permission from the crash victims’ family members.

Most cities that have roadside memorial sign programs usually charge victims’ families about $100 to create, install and maintain the sign, but Clouse said MADD will usually subsidize some of the costs, if not all of it.

After CDOT staff has approved an application, a sign will then be erected as close as possible to the crash site but will be removed after six years and returned to the family.

The problem, however, is that many of these requirements vary depending on the city or county administering the program.

City of Arvada spokeswoman Wendy Forbes said the city’s program is similar to the one offered by CDOT but also pointed out a few key differences.

The accident, she said, must have occurred within the city’s right-of-way and the sign must be for a person who was not involved in any other criminal activities when the accident happened. Forbes also said the sign is only allowed to be posted for a maximum of two years before it is returned to a victim’s family.

“We’ve definitely had some requests over the years that have been very powerful from family members,” Forbes said. “Unfortunately, sometimes in incidents like these where tragedies are so unexpected, we have been told that it (the signs) brings comfort to residents as they drive by or frequent an area and see the sign up. We feel that this is just a small way that we can assist some of our citizens and residents during a time of tragedy and we’re willing to step up and do that for them.”

While some communities have embraced the idea of taking up a roadside memorial program, other municipalities either have not considered the issue or voted against having a program in place on the heels of public opposition.

Dan Hartman, the city of Golden Public Work Director, said a proposal to create a sign program has not been introduced by either residents or City Council members and pointed out that only one known drunk driving fatality has taken place on the city’s right-of-way during his more than 20-year tenure.

The city of Lakewood, on the other hand, has a different position on the issue.

City spokeswoman Stacie Oulton said the city had a policy to allow these signs from 2002 to 2005 that was tailored to complement CDOT’s sign program.

That policy was later discontinued in 2005 and roadside memorial signs were no longer allowed in the city — the last sign to be taken down as a part of that program was removed in 2011.

At issue, Oulton said, was the danger of creating a distraction for drivers who would take their attention away from the road to read the sign. She said the signs also “created strong and varied emotions” among some community members who were particularly concerned about placing the signs along residential streets.

“The city had more than one situation in which a memorial sign created emotional distress for residents who would have to look at a memorial sign every day in front of or near their homes,” Oulton said in an email.

There are, however, some exceptions to that rule.

The Lakewood City Council approved a special request in 2007 to allow a roadside memorial for former Bear Creek High School student Samara Stricklen on West Alameda Parkway after she was killed in a head-on DUI collision.

“The exemption was given because the unique circumstances of this case provided an opportunity for the sign to serve as an educational tool to remind students from the nearby Green Mountain High School about the tragic results of underage drinking,” Oulton said.

Clouse said she hopes some municipalities will eventually implement or reconsider creating a sign program.

“Every jurisdiction is different,” Clouse said. “They just have this idea that their streets will get all cluttered with the names of people who died and I think that would be a really great thing. I’ll let you know when they start listening to me.”

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