Friday, April 9, 2010

Fatality Markers: A Study of Warning Signs and Memorials at Edmonton Intersections

By Kent Phillips, Emilly Buchfink and Kelsey Baddock



Warning signs; including fatality signs, roadside memorials, high collision signs and ghost bikes are erected at major Edmonton intersections to alert motorists, pedestrians and cyclists of the dangers of unsafe road habits and to highlight fatalities that have occurred in these areas. By looking at these forms of warning signs and memorials in Edmonton, we can begin a discourse of speaking about their meaning, function, usefulness, and ultimately, their place on Edmonton streets.

Michel Foucault uses the term discourse to help understand how power systems work in defining the way things are understood and talked about (Cartwright and Sturken, 2009, 100-111). These discourses can be represented by images, as in signs of fatality. Here we can also see Foucault’s use of discourse in the way rules and practices regulate how we talk about something. The discourse inherent in fatality signs and roadside memorials on Edmonton streets are structured on the relationship between power and knowledge. The fatality and road safety compliance signs that are erected in Edmonton are used by the city to manage how citizens regulate their driving behavior and adherence to the rules and laws of road safety. These regulations are enacted not through coercion, but through the cooperation of drivers, pedestrians and cyclists. This means that by erecting these signs, the city hopes that citizens will willingly obey laws, participate in social norms and adhere to dominant social values (Ibid). Furthermore, Foucault would state that certain kinds of knowledge in our society are validated through social institutions. The expert knowledge of the traffic safety planners is a fundamental aspect of power relations. These planners, in partnership with police and municipal government, use the signs as a method of discipline in a passive and self regulating manner (Ibid).

The City of Edmonton and the Edmonton Police Service, in response to tragic traffic fatalities, initiated the Traffic Fatality Sign Program. This is a program that is designed to increase awareness of fatal collisions by erecting a fatality sign near the scene of the collisions for a period of 6 months. These signs are not erected in residential areas and the family of the deceased has the option of requesting that a sign not be erected (City Of Edmonton, Transportation Division).

Researchers at the U of A have studied the usefulness of fatality signs and have found that they have little behavioral effect on motorists or pedestrians. "We suspect they don't work because it's not clear what they are supposed to do; they don't ask you to comply in any way, […] I think the idea is that the signs will make motorists and pedestrians act more cautiously, but unfortunately they don't," said Dr. Andrew Harrell, a sociology professor and executive director of the Population Research Lab at the University of Alberta (Smith 2005). Harrell said it is important to know whether or not a sign affects behavior, because if it is supposed to and it does not, policy makers can use the information and try to devise other means of meeting their goals. However, with regard to the fatality signs, Harrell added that if they are merely meant to raise awareness of the importance of traffic safety, they may be working, but it is hard to measure (Ibid). According to Brad Smid, senior traffic engineer for the City of Edmonton, the primary objective of the fatality sign program is to increase awareness of the possible consequences of collisions. He added that the program does not cost much, and Edmonton compares favorably with other cities in terms of traffic fatalities per population (Ibid).

Another form of warning signs that are more personal, are roadside memorials. These can include flowers, stuffed animals and photos that are erected by family members or friends of the deceased. These signs are actually not allowed by the city, but the city does not fine individuals for erection of them. The individuals who erect the memorials are discouraged from doing so and consulted by the city in order to take down the memorials at a time in the near future. Instead, they are encouraged to donate to the Edmonton Community Foundation in the name of the deceased family member or friend.
A primary concern for the City of Edmonton is the resulting safety challenges for pedestrians, motorists, and individuals who erect the memorials, as well as the potential distractions they cause for other road users. While the City of Edmonton realizes that families and friends need to express their love and grief, to ensure public safety, roadside memorials should not be erected (City of Edmonton, Memorial and Traffic Safety Fund). The discussion around these roadside memorials has caused much controversy, not only in Edmonton but all across Canada. The roadside memorials are either looked upon as sacred ground, being a memory of a loved one who has passed on, or as distracting eyesores which can be dangerous to motorists. The ongoing discussions on these public places, being used for private use, concerns not only the family of the deceased but also motorists passing by these signs, and the governmental institutions that decide what can go up and what must come down.


Ghost bikes began appearing in the US a number of years ago, put up by a group that wanted to highlight bicycle safety on roads. The ‘ghost bike’ is painted white and attached to a pole on or near a site where a cyclist was killed by a motorist. Many cyclists believe that motorists behave and treat them like ‘second class’ citizens. The Edmonton Bicycle Commuter’s Society helps to put up the bikes and wants to highlight the lack of respect between cyclists and motorists. Ghost bikes are just another way to remind people that cyclists have died, and that both cyclists and drivers need to pay attention on the road (Kleiss 2008).

Whereas the city decides which signs go up and which memorials come down, the citizens of Edmonton discuss the discourses of road safety in online forums and ‘letters to the editor’ in various newspapers. With today’s advanced online technology, anyone can communicate their views and opinions about city concerns to the general public through various media forms. Discussions on these topics are found in reply to any story written and released in papers such as The Edmonton Journal and the Edmonton Sun, or online chat forums such as Connect2Edmonton. One will find that in Edmonton, many of the opinion pages will discuss Edmonton’s road safety and fatality issues. As it stands now, these concerns and viewpoints may not be included in the general discourse of the City of Edmonton’s decision makers, or Edmonton Police Service’s discourse in their road safety rules. However, if enough citizen awareness is raised, those councilors, police and decision makers can change the laws and rules of the road. Road safety is an important concern in our growing city and we can see from the visual signs erected at Edmonton intersections that the people in charge of our driving safety want us to change our behavioral habits to become safer on the roads. Those images that we see every day at various intersections will hopefully make an impact on our habits, and caution drivers, pedestrians and cyclists as they move about the city. If we continue to discuss the concerns on our streets and talk about what works and what doesn’t, hopefully there will be less fatalities and less signs needed on our roads.



Works Citied:

Cartwright, Lisa and Marita Sturken.2009. Practices of Looking: An Introductory to Visual Culture. New York: Oxford University Press.

City of Edmonton. Memorial &Traffic Safety Fund. http://www.edmonton.ca/transportation/memorial-and-traffic-safety-fu.aspx.

Kleiss, K. 2008. Edmonton cyclists erect ‘ghost bike’ memorials where fellow riders were fatally hit. Edmonton Journal, Sept.6.

Smith, Ryan.2005. Pedestrians and motorists ignore ‘roadside fatality signs, study shows. Express News. University of Alberta, Feb.7.

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