Long after the skid marks, broken glass and motor oil stains from a fatal car crash have disappeared, a new white marking on Lexington County roadways will remind motorists of the life that was lost there.
Lexington County Coroner Margaret Fisher recently began painting white crosses on roadways where people were killed in collisions. The practice, which was started by another Midlands coroner in the late 1980s, has drawn criticism from groups who say the crosses violate the separation of church and state. Yet more than a dozen county coroners in South Carolina now paint the emblems where people were killed in traffic collisions.
“Painting these crosses is like a memorial to the families,” said Fisher, who became coroner in 2014 and was re-elected in 2016. “But it also serves as a reminder and encourages safer driving. You’re driving down the road, you see the white cross. It’ll bring awareness to the fact that, ‘Hey, somebody died at this location. Maybe I need to pay attention. Maybe I need to slow down.’”
Fisher so far has painted six crosses. The first was painted on Old Barnwell Road, where 65-year-old Larry Edgar Williams was killed in a three-vehicle crash while riding his Harley Davidson on Easter Sunday. The stencil includes the words “Look Twice, Save a Life” for motorcycle fatalities. For other traffic fatalities, they paint just the cross portion.
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The stencils and white spray paint are donated, Fisher said. Coroner’s office employees keep the supplies in their vehicles and can paint the crosses immediately after the crash, as long as the family is notified.
“We let the families go through the grieving process before we bring up the fact that we are going to paint a cross,” Fisher said.
So far in 2017, Lexington County is on par with last year’s number of traffic fatalities at 33 as of Sept. 4, according to the S.C. Department of Public Safety.
Families now expect a cross
The Lexington County cross program is modeled after one started by former Aiken County Coroner Sue Townsend in the late 1980s.
Townsend got the idea from former state Rep. Ed Simpson, a Republican from Clemson who introduced legislation in 1989 that would have required the sites of traffic fatalities to be marked by 4-foot crosses, according to a 1991 article in The State newspaper. The proposal languished in committee, but Townsend put the idea to work in Aiken County.
When Townsend died in 2004, at least 10 county coroners had implemented the program, and agencies as far away as Argentina had contacted her about it, according to her obituary. More South Carolina coroners have followed suit in the years since.
“It’s something I think Aiken County citizens have come to expect,” said Coroner Tim Carlton, who succeeded Townsend and has continued the cross painting. “Sometimes the families will even call us if we don’t get the cross down in a timely manner.”
The cross program even caught the attention of U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond, who had it written into the Congressional Record, Carlton said. Thurmond’s daughter, Nancy Moore Thurmond, later would be fatally struck by a car while crossing a street in downtown Columbia.
Greenville County adopted the program in 1992. The success of it there prompted Anderson County Coroner Greg Shore in 1996 to start painting crosses, too.
“It seemed to be well-received by families of victims” in Greenville County, Shore said. “It’s just something we implemented ourselves. We haven’t had any pushback or communication with the Department of Transportation with our crosses.”
Coroners who paint the crosses say they typically do not repaint them after the roadways have been resurfaced.
‘Inappropriate and unconstitutional’
The white crosses have not been without controversy.
Townsend faced criticism from the Department of Transportation and the S.C. Highway Patrol, which contended in the 1990s that the crosses were unauthorized markings that could confuse motorists. Aiken’s Carlton said his office created a protocol with highway officials and, since then, has not had problems with putting the markings down.
There are also opponents who say the coroners painting crosses is an endorsement of religion by county government, violating the separation of church and state. The Freedom from Religion Foundation penned a letter to the Department of Transportation in August 2016 after receiving a complaint from a resident about coroners in the Upstate painting crosses at the sites of motorcycle fatalities.
“Nearly 30% of Americans are non-Christians, either practicing a minority religion or no religion at all,” attorney Patrick Elliott said in the letter, a copy of which was provided to The State newspaper. “The use of a sectarian symbol to mark the site of a tragic event is not inclusive of all of those who have suffered a loss.”
Elliott said the crosses violate the First Amendment and state highway laws. “We certainly think it’s inappropriate and unconstitutional for a government official to be painting a Christian cross on state roads, and we think it should be stopped immediately,” he told The State.
Fisher said her employees do not have to ask permission from the victim’s family to paint the cross, but they still do as a courtesy. If the family objects, they will not paint it.
“If for some reason they don’t want us to paint it, then we’re not going to do it,” she said. “We tell them you can think of the cross as a lower-case T that stands for ‘traffic accident.’”
No families have objected to the crosses so far, Fisher said. In Aiken County, where the program began, Carlton said the cross had no religious significance when Townsend started the program.
“It’s just a reminder to the motoring public that a tragic event happened there,” he said.