You’ve probably noticed for years while driving around signs at the side of the road telling you not to drink and drive in memory of someone killed at the site.
Each one has their own sad story.
One involves Christopher R. Ziegler, 23, who died in a crash about a dozen years ago in North Kitsap near Hansville. Excessive speed and alcohol were factors, a Kitsap County Sheriff’s Office representative reported.
An off-duty sheriff’s deputy found a 23-year-old Poulsbo man at the side of the road and thought it was a hit and run, until a car was found in the woods with Ziegler, of Bremerton, inside about 40 feet away. The BMW he was driving sheared off a traffic sign, went over an embankment and down into a ravine, where it struck several trees and rolled.
The Poulsbo man suffered head injuries and broken bones and was airlifted to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, where he survived.
There are many other sad stories.
“Too many,” said Ron Torrez, who has been part of the nonprofit DUI Impact Panel in Kitsap County for 34 years. “People see the signs but they don’t really realize there was a live person who died and is being honored there.”
People who want such a sign on a state highway need to talk to Deanna Brewer of the state Department of Transportation.
“We used to write down the whole horrible scenario,” she said. “For a lot of people, this program means a lot to them.”
The program started in 1988 due to public pressure. People used to put white crosses on the side of highways. Mothers Against Drunk Driving thought that was dangerous, so they pitched the state program, and in 1994 Washington was the first in the nation to do it.
In 2009 they expanded it to include deaths caused by speeding, texting and driving, not wearing a seat belt, watch for motorcyclists, bicyclists and pedestrians, etc.
“Families were reaching out to us to put up a sign in honor of their loved one,” Brewer said, adding they only do it if the request comes from the closest relative. “We’ve gotten burned” when a family and friend wanted one, but not the wife, for example, Brewer said. “It can really be a challenge” when people are grieving the death of a loved one.
She said the state is in the process of making more changes to simplify the process. Fees are going to be standard. Signs will only stay up five years instead of seven, because of sign congestion, and then it will go to the family.
There is no state money for signs so it’s up to families to pay for them. Some use GoFundMe and other methods to help with costs.
Brewer said many Public Works departments in cities and counties offer similar programs. Rather than signs, some offer park benches, a cobblestone wall or brick tiles.
She said sometimes they place the signs away from where the accident actually took place for safety reasons. “People don’t slow down. It’s really dangerous.”
Brewer said the state used to allow families to watch the installation, but don’t anymore because people are more reckless and drive faster, “They wouldn’t bat an eye if something was going on.”
Part of the agreement families sign to get a sign says people cannot congregate at the site. She said the roadside is no place for 50 people to gather. The pact also says not to hang flowers or leave things like stuffed animals.
“It’s not a place to sit and mourn,” Brewer said, although, “it’s such an emotional time for them. I’ve gotten off the phone in tears.”
She said many of the deaths are so senseless. Even one or two drinks, looking at your phone and texting —“Take that extra step to not do it.”
Families get extra upset often months after fatal accidents if the person charged with a DUI gets off on a technicality. “They have to be convicted” to qualify for a sign, Brewer said.
Brewer said she looks forward to technical advancements that won’t allow people to drive drunk. Breathalyzers could go in all cars, not just those where the driver has been convicted of drunk driving. There could be sensors in cars that if they detect alcohol the car won’t start.
“It just blows me away,” she said of people who drink and drive. She knows of one person caught on Highway 3 who had three DUI’s and was stopped with a blood-alcohol level of .33. The legal limit is .08, but the state legislature is looking to drop it to .05. “It’s like a time bomb when they’re driving.”
If the family doesn’t have enough money for a sign, the impact panel can help. Much of their money comes from citations issued when these tragedies occur.
“I see people go to prison over one beer,” Torrez said.
Some of the speakers in the impact panel program have been through the tragedies themselves.
One was a Boeing executive who spent 79 months in prison when he ran a car into a pole, killing another Boeing exec who was in the vehicle with him.
“He shares his message with everybody. It’s not easy to share your soul with people,” Torrez said. “These things can happen to anybody.”
Now 79, Torrez shared his soul, saying he grew up in Pasadena and started going sideways at age 12, eventually getting involved in alcohol, narcotics, and even smuggling. He moved to this state 40 years ago, but, “You don’t run from trouble. It follows you. Moving is not always the answer.”
He was able to turn his life around when he became friends with a probation officer who talked him into becoming a speaker. His major regret was his parents died before he came clean.
Torrez said there are consequences when people drive impaired. Just because they’ve gotten away with it before doesn’t mean they will get away with it the next time.
He said he doesn’t think everyone has to quit drinking. “Just don’t put your key in the car.”
To request a memorial roadside sign, contact WSDOT — Roadside Memorial Signs, P.O. Box 37344, Olympia, WA 98504-7344.
Costs are $500 for freeway onramps, $750 for two-lane highways and $950 for non-freeway multilane highways.
There are fewer restrictions to get a sign in Kitsap County. They can be sponsored by family or friends of the deceased, the driver of the vehicle or the community where the fatality occurred.
If the fatality occurred within a city limit, contact that city’s Public Works Department to see if it offers a similar program.
The state Traffic Safety Commission says DUI laws apply to alcohol and marijuana, illegal and prescription drugs — anything that impairs driving. Drivers in those conditions are three times more likely to be involved in a fatal crash.
Its website says 278 people were killed in 2016, the last year listed, as a result of impaired driving. There were 315 killed in 2006 and 215 in 2011.
Other stats show an average of 149 people die from July to September each summer; 100 people per day are arrested between Thanksgiving and New Year’s on average each year for DUI; and 25,619 people were arrested for all of 2017 for DUI.