Montana Outdoors

January 24, 2009

A reminder and a remembrance

Filed under: Highway safety, Montana — Tags: — montucky @ 9:59 pm

A warning and a remembrance

The setting of this is on the river side of a wide, sweeping curve on an extremely dangerous piece of a very short highway known as Montana 135. In a canyon along the Clark Fork river and noted for sharp curves and frequent patches of ice, it’s now classified as a Scenic Highway, with the forested mountains of two roadless areas towering over it on both sides: it’s a beautiful but lonely place.

Since 1953 the American Legion has been installing small white crosses at the sites of fatal traffic accidents all over Montana as a sober reminder to “Please Drive Carefully”. Over 2,000 have now been erected.

Although the program is intended to be a safety program and not a memorial program, many families will place decorations on the supporting poles as a memorial to a loved one who was lost in an accident. At first I objected to the decorations, thinking them to be a distraction from the safety program, but after reflecting for awhile on some, like this one, I’m beginning to think that maybe they carry an even more powerful message than just the simple plain white crosses. It’s difficult to get this image and everything it represents out of my thoughts, and perhaps I do drive a little safer as a result.

Montana White Cross Information

(A few days ago I was reminded of the crosses by this post by Preston Surface on the Surface & Surface Photography blog site: Highway 99 Road Monument)


  1. although no one organization takes responsibility for doing it in this part of the country I see similar things occasionally. I can see where it might be a reminder to be more cautious, but also I still think it is a distraction. Here on I-87 is a long, two-mile hill. There used to be a cross at the place of an accident. Granted it was a bad spot, but the added distraction made it worse. Also if the American Legion is putting up crosses have they determined that the victim was christian? Just food for thought….


    Comment by Cedar — January 25, 2009 @ 6:30 am

  2. Cedar,

    I can see where the signs, particularly the decorated ones, can be a distraction, however, that has never come up in Montana. The response has all been positive here as far as I can tell.

    I don’t know for sure, but the Legion thinks there is a federal regulation prohibiting the crosses on interstate highways, and I can’t remember seeing any on I-90. I have no idea if they try to determine whether the person is a Christian or not, but really doubt if they do. Again, I’ve not see that to be a subject of controversy: probably most don’t think about that and probably see it as strictly a safety issue, not a religious one.

    Personally, I think that anything in the world that might make a driver more careful is a good thing. I would venture a guess that up to half of the fatalities on Montana roads are due at least in part to alcohol and there are some major efforts at controlling that, and certainly the crosses don’t have an effect in those cases. The other major cause is speed.

    Here the maximum speed limit is 70 mph, which in my opinion is about 20 mph faster than the average person can drive safely on our rather primitive highways, even in good weather. The problem is that at higher speeds if any small problem is encountered, the driver has no time to make a correction and the higher the speed the more severe the problem. For example, two months ago I was part of the extrication team that had to cut a woman out of her car on a curve about a mile from where the photo was taken. Luckily for her, she was not driving at a high rate of speed when she hit the patch of black ice, and when she hit the cliff beside the curve her car protected her enough that she survived. If she had been traveling 20 mph faster she would not have had a chance of surviving. It’s my hope that the crosses have some impact on the speeds, especially in the sharp curves of which there are so many here.

    I’ve also seen some changes in the construction of the highways as a result of the crosses. Immediately in mind was a sharp curve going on to a bridge about 45 miles from here: the concrete bridge abutment had 9 white crosses on it. The whole section of highway was rebuilt about 15 years ago as a result and there hasn’t been a fatality there since.


    Comment by montucky — January 25, 2009 @ 10:18 am

  3. Very interesting comment by Cedar, in which I haven’t thought about. Crosses have been the symbolism used for marking graves… a standard. I certainly haven’t seen anything different such as a monolith of sorts.

    Either I’ve been aware more so or there has been more and more of the decorated crosses dotting the roadways marking a reminder. Some, I’ve noticed, maintained for years.

    Actually, this is a lovely capture, Montucky, if one can see the beauty in it. The photo Preston had taken of the cross along side the road is a place where exactly two had died from horrific auto accidents. One on each side of the road. Each time I pass by, I actually think they need to be let go, and the energy cleared from that area. Anyway, my thoughts….


    Comment by Anna Surface — January 25, 2009 @ 10:23 am

  4. Anna,

    Yes, the symbolism of the crosses is interesting. I doubt that any other symbol would be as strong in this application. Maybe too, it takes some strength from the American Red Cross, whose use of it as a symbol seems to be outside of the religious connotation; or not?

    It would be interesting and very important I would think if there were (or could be) some kind of data or statistics to determine the impact of the crosses, whether positive or negative from the safety standpoint.

    As far as using them as a memorial, that has always seemed strange to me, something I would not consider doing, and I would not like to think that anyone would consider decorating my place of death, but there are obviously others who feel differently. I do know as I took the photo and studied the cross and its decorations I had a lot of emotions about it. Some of the strongest were rage and frustration that the grief evidenced at the spot was probably completely avoidable as most highway accidents are.


    Comment by montucky — January 25, 2009 @ 11:06 am

  5. It’s a lovely cross and photo. I think they serve as meaningful memorials and valuable reminders. I, for one, am inclined to slow down when I see them. I often take them as a warning sign — “this is a bad curve, be careful.”


    Comment by Patia — January 25, 2009 @ 2:27 pm

  6. Patia,

    That’s about what I think too. I really hope that overcomes the distraction effect that they have for some folks. I’ve noticed that most of the locals tend to drive slower through the bad spots, but not necessarily those from other states who seem to pay more attention to the speed limit than the danger.


    Comment by montucky — January 25, 2009 @ 4:29 pm

  7. Your photo shows that beauty can be found in the strangest places at times. The ribbon flowing in the wind makes such a statement to me. Here in NC you often see these crosses at accident sites.


    Comment by SuzieQ — January 25, 2009 @ 7:26 pm

  8. That scene does indeed make a quite a statement, SuzieQ. It will likely be on my mind for a long time.


    Comment by montucky — January 25, 2009 @ 7:32 pm

  9. I found your blog last week via…From the Front Porch and have been very much enjoying and after seeing this pic… took this as my sign to comment…

    As SuzieQ said …you do see these quite often in NC. Sometimes they make me sad but yet remind me to slow down. I have mixed emotions about them…


    Comment by Sandy in NC — January 25, 2009 @ 9:31 pm

  10. Sandy in NC,

    I see what you mean. There’s sadness in all of the crosses, but some really make contact with me. I remember one from many years ago along a highway in Arizona. I knew the circumstances of that one and seeing it always made me sad.

    I also have mixed emotions about them, but if they make a difference and act to save even one life, they are worthwhile!

    I was stationed for three years at MCAS Cherry Point, NC, but somehow I don’t have distinct memories of crosses on the highways there. Of course, that was in the mid 60’s.

    Thank you for visiting and commenting!


    Comment by montucky — January 25, 2009 @ 10:20 pm

  11. beautiful shot. we do the same here. Sometimes it’s a doll with a cross, fake flowers with a white as cloud cross .. what odd place holders in life?… A person drives in the road at the wrong moment at the wrong time… I never thought to take a shot of this issue; I’ve fundementally ignored it. :o) I guess I still abide by the idea that death is a personal issue..


    Comment by aullori — January 28, 2009 @ 10:53 pm

  12. Thanks for dropping by, Lori, and thanks for your opinion! This is something we see as we travel the highways, apparently in many states, but seldom hear anything about it.

    I hope all is going well with you!


    Comment by montucky — January 28, 2009 @ 11:33 pm

  13. I am; as I expect you are; doing really well. I miss the sun though! ;o) Once in awhile it makes an appearance and I feel like the most blessed person in the world! btw; I love your mt. shots…


    Comment by aullori — January 29, 2009 @ 11:13 pm

  14. Thanks! I have missed the sun, but I understand it will make at least a cameo appearance tomorrow and i’m looking forward to that.


    Comment by montucky — January 30, 2009 @ 1:01 am

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