Brake Family Liaison Officer Handbook: Roadside memorials

Introduction   

Families bereaved in road crashes frequently wish to place flowers, cards or other mementos, and subsequently sometimes more permanent memorials, at the place where their loved one or loved ones died. This is very normal behaviour for families who have been violently and suddenly bereaved by a horrific event. However, in recent years, some local authorities have developed policies that aim to restrict this practice, for a variety of stated reasons. Furthermore, people who live in communities where memorials are placed sometimes complain about those memorials, for different stated reasons, sometimes comparatively trivial. These policies and complaints have caused predictable upset to families bereaved by road death.    

How Brake can help   

Brake believes that all families bereaved by road death should be able to, if they wish, place flowers and other memorials that are safe and reasonable at the place where their loved ones died. We know that these memorials are of comfort to many families, and that they provide a stark reminder to other drivers of the consequences of bad driving.    

Many local authorities are happy for small memorials to be placed at the roadside, such as small plaques, wooden crosses and flowers. However, sadly, some local authorities object to permanent memorials, even small ones, and even go as far as restricting the length of time that flowers can be placed at the scene of a crash. Brake can help families to liaise with their local authority to find out what is possible in your area. FLOs can call our helpline on 0808 8000 401 on behalf of families to discuss this service. In many cases, we have been able to negotiate with a local authority and achieve a memorial that is both safe and in line with a family's objectives.    

Brake has also helped some families, who wish to have a roadside memorial, by producing the roadside memorial for them. For this service, we only charge the cost of production of the memorial. For example, we have produced 20cm tall wooden crosses that are suitable for attaching to lamp-posts. If you want Brake to help you in this way, with a memorial of any kind, call our helpline on 0808 8000 401.    

Read on for Brake's policy statement on roadside memorials

This policy aims to explain Brake's perspective on roadside memorials, as advocates for families so traumatically bereaved, to help inform local authorities' decisions and the decisions of bereaved families.    

An insight into a death on the road:

Roadside memorials, either temporary or permanent, may bring comfort, and therefore aid recovery, for many bereaved families. Death on the road is devastating and literally rips families apart. People who die on roads are frequently young adults, in the prime of their lives with loving, close families, or children, who leave behind devastated parents and siblings. Their deaths are violent and horrendous, often caused by massive internal organ injury, bleeding, crushing, decapitation or limb loss, or burning. A loved one may be unrecognisable after death, and the family therefore has no chance to say goodbye to the person as they knew them. Sometimes, people who are killed in road crashes die slowly, after a time in an intensive care unit. This in itself is extremely distressing for the family, who may have to face their loved one going through multiple operations or being pronounced brain stem dead, and ultimately dying after a terrible battle for life. None of these deaths is expected. All are shocking and result in traumatic grief for the family and close friends left behind.  

Frequently, people who die on roads do so through no fault of their own, the victims of speeding, drunk, drugged, illegal or otherwise dangerous drivers. Frequently, the criminals who caused their death are let off with minor punishments, causing additional distress to bereaved families.    

Why are roadside memorials, temporary or permanent, important to many bereaved families?

  • Across the world, bereaved people find that gestures and ceremonies that enable them to honour a person who has died are very significant in the grieving process, particularly if the death was traumatic, violent and unexpected.   
  • Visiting the scene of a crash, and laying flowers there for example, is therefore a very normal and comforting thing for families bereaved by that crash to do. Sometimes families are able to do this within hours of receiving the terrible news. For others, who live further away, it may require a long journey. Equally understandable, some families may find that, due to the traumatic nature of their grief, that they find it difficult, or even impossible, to visit the scene of death.   
  • Having a temporary or permanent memorial at the site of the crash helps many families to connect to the event that caused their loved one(s) death(s). Often, the bereaved family were not involved in the crash, and heard about it when a police officer knocked on their door, miles away and hours after the event. Many families subsequently have an urgent need to know, and remember, the details of the crash that killed their loved one(s). Visiting and respecting the scene of their death or fatal injuries is critical to this. This is similar to the needs of families bereaved by the two great wars who have visited over the years the sites in France and elsewhere of their loved ones' deaths, which are often marked with significant memorials.    
  • Re-laying fresh flowers, weekly or on anniversaries, is a way families can express that they have not forgotten, and are continuing to honour the way their loved one or loved ones died, and are keeping their memory alive.    
  • Arranging for a permanent memorial, such as a small wooden cross, to be placed at the scene of death, is also normal. Fatal train disasters are another type of transport disaster that is frequently commemorated in this way. There is a permanent plaque at King's Cross to commemorate the people who died there in the Underground Fire. Equally important, a memorial garden has been built next to the railway line on which 10 men died in the Selby Rail Disaster.    
  • These memorials, either temporary or permanent, carry enormous significance to many bereaved families, in addition to graves or places where ashes have been scattered or kept, particularly, perhaps, if there had been little of the body left to bury or cremate, following the violence of a crash.    
  • Many families bereaved by road death perceive roadside memorials as a vital reminder for other drivers and for communities in which there have been deaths on the road. Again, this is similar to the 'Lest we Forget' message on many war memorials. Many families bereaved by road death do not want their loved ones to be forgotten by drivers who use the roads, and have the view that out of respect for those who have died, and to prevent further tragedies, their deaths should be constantly remembered by passing motorists.    

Advice to Local Authorities and Police when formulating policies on roadside memorials   

It should firstly be remembered that bereaved families will be highly grief struck, but also are, in the vast majority, reasonable human beings who do not wish to contribute to further road crashes or environmental problems. However, discussions with bereaved families should be handled with extreme sensitivity, by bereavement experts, in recognition of the deaths they have suffered and their needs.    

Brake takes the following position on policy decisions relating to roadside memorials:   

1. FLOWERS AND OTHER MOVEABLE ITEMS   

  • Bereaved families should have the default right to lay flowers or other small items at any time at the site of their loved one's crash, such as on verges and tied to lamp-posts. To prevent unnecessary environmental pollution, families are advised to remove any unnecessary packaging, particularly plastic packaging around flowers. However, if packaged flowers are placed, or any other semi-permanent items such as cards or teddy bears, bereaved families should not be penalised in any way by the authority. If items such as teddy bears are thought to be causing an obstruction or to have entirely decayed, the authority should follow a process of mediation led by a bereavement officer, as outlined further below, before deciding on appropriate action.    
  • There should be no restrictions on the length of time that flowers or other small items can be laid or re-laid. Traumatic grief can take years to recover from, and bereaved families never forget. Placing a time limit on flowers is placing a time limit on grieving, which is inhumane, impossible to communicate without appearing cruel and unreasonable, and also complex for an authority to enforce.    
  • If flowers or other items are placed on grass that is cut by the local authority, grass cutting staff should be advised to lift the items with care and then replace them once the grass underneath has been cut.    
  • If flowers or other items have completely decayed (to the extent they have turned black/mouldy/are falling to pieces), then the council has a reasonable right to remove them. Before removal, however, the authority should, through the police family liaison officer, inform the family of its decision, and allow a period of time in which the family can visit the scene and see for themselves that the items have decayed. In many cases, if a family performs this visit, they may decide to remove the items themselves and possibly replace with fresh items.     
  • If a complaint is made by a member of the public about the placing of flowers or other items, that complaint should only be given consideration if the items are immediately outside that person's house, for example on a lamp-post directly next to their front gate, or a verge directly next to their drive. The complaint should also only be given consideration if more than 6 months has passed since the time of the crash. It should never be considered on or around an anniversary of the death.    
  • Genuine complaints that meet the above two criteria should result in a period of mediation between the member of the public and the bereaved family, with a mutually-satisfactory resolution reached. An example of satisfactory resolution could be, for example, a smaller flower arrangement, or flowers only placed at certain times, such as birthdays and anniversaries of the death or deaths. This mediation should take the form of phone calls or meetings, not impersonal letters, which should always be undertaken by a trained bereavement officer, and not by staff who are inexperienced in working with bereaved people, such as a highways officer. A bereaved family should never be forced to meet a complainant face to face, but if they wish to do so, to state their case, then the complainant should be given that opportunity. If a face to face meeting is arranged, it should always take place in a confidential environment and in the presence of the mediator. Bereaved families should be able to bring along a relevant advocate, such as a police family liaison officer. If a resolution cannot be reached, external organisations such as Brake should be consulted and involved, although this is unlikely to be necessary in most cases.    
  • Flowers or other objects should not be removed on the basis that they are posing a distraction to other motorists. The argument that temporary or permanent road death memorials are a distraction is entirely moot when considered against the many other distractions on the edge of our roads, some of them floral (for example, colourful flower beds planted on verges and on roundabouts by local authorities, sometimes spelling out the name of a town or a message). Other distractions obviously include signposts to tourist destinations, shop fronts, bill boards, and many other items, including people on pavements and other road users. If a driver notices bunches of flowers placed in memory of someone who has died, then it is highly likely that they will also recognise these flowers as an important reminder that someone has died on this road and it is important to drive carefully. In that sense, flowers are a less invasive or hazardous road safety message to drivers than road signs saying 'X people killed on this road in X years' which are commonly placed by authorities themselves. Flowers are biodegradable, and unlike road signs (which are made of metal), pose no danger to vehicle occupants in a road crash.    

2. ERECTING OF PERMAMENT MEMORIALS   

  • Families bereaved by road crashes should be able to follow a simple application process if they wish to place a permanent memorial at, or near, the site of their loved one's death. This application should require just a simple letter or phone call outlining what the family wish to erect (including height and size) and exactly where. This application should be handled by the authority by a skilled bereavement officer, who can act as an intermediary between the family and the relevant highway authority representative. The application can be submitted by either the family, or an advocate acting on their behalf, such as Brake, or a police family liaison officer, or a solicitor.    
  • When considering applications, the authority should be reasonable and aim to achieve compromise where possible if an application is unlikely to be granted. Many families are satisfied with a permanent memorial that is modest in size and environmental impact and therefore reasonable for a local authority to allow. For example, a small cross (or other religious sign) or plaque on a small stone, or a plaque or religious sign attached to a post that is already there. However, if a family wished to erect something that an authority objected to, then a process of discussion should follow, aiming for compromise. For example, if a family wished to have a one metre high memorial stone in the middle of a grass verge on a bend in a road, the authority may argue that the stone poses a hazard to other motorists, should they veer off the road at that point. However, a compromise could, for example, include incorporating the memorial stone into part of an existing dry stone wall at that point on the road. 
  • The location of a permanent memorial should also consider whether traffic would pose a risk to people wishing to visit that memorial. It is reasonable for consideration to be given to whether it is possible for people to reach a memorial in safety, either by foot, bicycle or vehicle. In some instances, a family may wish to place a memorial at the site of the crash despite its danger to visitors, and commit to not visiting it without police help. However, the safety of the general public should also be considered. Where there is very significant risk to people visiting the memorial, a family may wish to place a memorial elsewhere in order to eliminate the risk of members of the public being tempted through curiosity to visit a memorial in a dangerous place, posing risk to their own lives.
  • Authorities should also consider having a permanent memorial to road death victims in a local park, onto which names can be carved as deaths occur. However, such memorials should not be used as a way of then arguing against allowing families to discuss with local authorities memorial possibilities at the sites of the deaths of their loved ones.    

3. COMMUNICATING A COUNCIL OR POLICE POLICY ON ROADSIDE MEMORIALS

In the past, there has been some extremely insensitive literature on roadside memorial policy produced by councils which has proved highly offensive to families so violently and tragically bereaved.

Any local authority or police authority considering writing a policy on roadside memorials, and writing publicity materials that communicate that policy to bereaved families, should consult Brake and any other local agencies that support road crash victims prior to publication.    

For a small fee, Brake can give advice on draft documents, including providing advice on appropriate language to use when communicating with people recently bereaved by road death (Brake is the national police provider of road death support literature).    

The production of local policies should always be led by a council or police bereavement officer, in consultation with relevant highways authority personnel and support agencies, and aim to follow the advice in this Brake policy document.    

The most effective way that local authorities and the police can reduce road death memorials is to reduce road deaths themselves, through implementation of road safety measures such as lower speed limits and enforcement.   

All comments on this policy are welcomed. Please send to brake@brake.org.uk.    

Prepared by Brake, the national road safety charity     Last updated December 2008.

Tags: police Family Liaison Officer