USA: Crosses and Coffee

Drive down Route 2 in Montana, and you’ll begin to ask yourself about 2 things: 1) the 70 mph speed limit, and 2) all the small white crosses on the side of the road.

Coming into Montana from Wyoming, the 70 mile per hour speed limit that seemed so appropriate suddenly seemed way too fast. Coming from the East Coast, where speed limits seem to always be just slightly below the optimal road speed, I took the 70 mile per hour speed limit to mean “set your cruise control for 74”. Whip around one of those mountain curves going over 70 mph and that perception will be changed. In Montana the speed limit might be  just that, an actual speed, limit.

The second thing you’ll notice about Montana’s roads, is that they are lined with small white crosses on red poles. These are part of a highway safety program began in 1953 by an American Legion member and now maintained by the various American Legion groups throughout the state. The 60 years’ worth of crosses are meant to act as a reminder for drivers to slow down and not drive drunk. However, as the crosses continue to fly past my window, I wonder if they actually have their intended effect. They worked on me, but I was new to the idea. Does the sleepy college kid, tipsy bar goer, or newly licensed teenager, all of whom spent their whole lives seeing those crosses go by, think about what those crosses mean before heading out on the road?

In 2002 Montana had the highest rate of drunk driving deaths and the third highest per capita fatality rate in the nation for car accidents. In 2005 Montana was tied with Hawaii and D.C. for the percent of alcohol related traffic fatalities – 47%. It almost makes you wonder if drunk driving education programs and dropping those speed limits by 5-10 mph in some places wouldn’t have more of an effect than the white crosses.

I immediately noticed as I left Montana and crossed into Idaho, a state with an alcohol related fatality percent below the national average, that the crosses disappeared. They were suddenly replaced with blue “free coffee” signs at each highway rest stop. Crosses vs. free coffee – it would be an interesting research study.

— For stories and memorials dedicated to those that have been killed in Montana road accidents, visit the Montana Highway Crosses site.

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