Vol. 17  No. 3  Nov. 4, 2005  Next Issue: Nov. 18, 2005
A publication of Carleton University's School of Journalism
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Marking death on Canadian roads
Roadside memorials for people killed in car accidents dot the countryside near Montpellier, France.
OTTAWA †|† ó They stand by the side of French roads as reminders of deadly accidents: black human silhouettes, their faces shattered by a blood-red lightning strike.

Itís a haunting image designed to make drivers in France more cautious. Canadians will soon see different reminders with a similar purpose.

Since 2000, French municipal governments have placed the silhouettes at the site of roadside crashes to commemorate victims of motor vehicle accidents.

In the Caribbean, skulls and cross-bones are placed by the roadside.

On Nova Scotiaís roads, a provincial government program to plant crosses has been active since 1995.

And now in Ontario, the Ministry of Transportation plans to subsidize a Mothers Against Drunk Driving campaign to install small rectangular signs that bear the name of the deceased.

Silhouettes, crosses, skulls, rectangular signs. They are all different, but share the same purpose: to remind drivers of danger.

A frightening statement

In 1999, French artist Jean-Pierre Giraudís son was killed while crossing a bridge in France. Giraud created the first silhouette design in his garage and asked the city to install copies at crash sites.

"A car is like a grenade," Giraud told the Montpellier Art-Presse in 2000. "It can take the lives of many people. The silhouettes exist to remind people of that."

After his home city of Montpellier agreed to pay for the silhouettes, the idea spread to rural districts across France. Today, the silhouettes number in the hundreds and line roads from Normandy to Bordeaux.

A reminder of death

Road to ruin

Fast facts about impaired driving in Canada.

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French drivers agree the sight is disturbing.

Saki Sakidou, a factory worker from Bordeaux, sees several silhouettes on his daily commute.

He says the stylized image of a bloody face has made him more cautious when driving and has made him aware of which roads are more dangerous.

"It is morbid, absolutely," Sakidou said in French during an interview in Paris this summer.

"But when you see one, you are reminded of death. It's very serious. There is a certain kind of reverence, almost. You can't help but decelerate."

Ontario now on board

On Oct. 21, the Ontario government approved a plan to partially fund road markers.

Julia Munro, a member of provincial parliament for North York, proposed the idea and says the signs will be a fitting tribute to victims of drunk drivers.

She says her motion did not specify what design should be used for the markers, leaving that to MADD Canada and the Ontario Ministry of Transportation.

"These signs will be both a memorial to the deceased and a testament to the fact that people die unnecessarily," she says.

"I think it represents a real person. It brings that kind of poignancy."

Human shapes more effective

The Ontario signs, which will look like plaques, may not have the same emotional impact as the black silhouettes do on drivers in France. A study done on the French signs found they were more effective than conventional signs.

'It wonít stand out as much as the other sign. But we had to work within the restrictions of the Ontario Ministry of Transport.'

The telephone survey done by the city of Montpellier in 2004, found that 60 per cent of respondents knew of the French silhouettes.

Drivers had less recollection of rectangular yellow signs that displayed the number of people killed on that road in recent memory. These were simultaneously installed on the same roads at different points.

While most of those polled described the silhouettes as "frightening," "morbid," and "shocking," they ultimately judged the program a good initiative.

Fifty six per cent of respondents said the silhouettes changed their driving habits in some way, and within a year of the program, average speeds in Montpellier actually slowed — by about two miles an hour, which the city called "insignificant."

A slight drop in fatal crashes was also reported for Montpellier, but no direct link to the silhouettes was established.

A Montpellier city report says, "from the letters and spontaneous testimonies we have received, we know the tone of the program is just. Thanks to media coverage, we can say the primary objective has been reached."

Memorials must follow rules

The design of the MADD signs in Ontario will be less dramatic than the French silhouette, says Wanda Kristensen, from MADD's Ontario chapter. But she says the design was limited by rules about the size and shape of roadside panels allowed in the province.

"It wonít stand out as much as the other sign," she says. "But we had to work within the restrictions of the Ontario Ministry of Transport."

Deaths due to impaired driving in Canada

Kristensen says she does not care for the French design — especially after losing her son David in an alcohol-related crash in 1996.

"Personally I would not want a black silhouette where my son was killed," she says. Kristensen says she would be more comfortable with MADD Canadaís signs, which she says are more respectful.

Creative solutions sought

In 2004, World Health Day was dedicated to road safety. Transport Canada and the Canadian Council of Motor Transport Administrators issued a report called 'Road Safety 2010: Making Canada's Roads the Safest in the World.' It declared Canada's automotive death toll unacceptably high.

The report suggests key points for reducing deadly accidents like the increased use of seat belts and child restraints, a reduction in drunk driving and a crackdown on speeding.

Creative solutions such as pedestrian countdown signs and the widening of sidewalks are also called for in the report.

According to the report, the economic cost of traffic collisions to Canadians is as high as $5 billion annually, when health care costs, property losses and other factors are considered.

Related Links

Opens in a new window MADD Canada's research library

Opens in a new window Perceptions and realities of drinking and driving in Canada: the Traffic Research Injury Foundation

Opens in a new window The Alcohol-Crash Problem in Canada 2003: a report from the Canadian Council of Motor Transport Administrators

Opens in a new window A history of roadside memorials in Mexico
The daily toll
of impaired driving

Everyday in Canada, an average of four people are killed by impaired drivers.

Source: MADD Canada

What does impaired driving mean?

Impaired driving is driving a car, truck, boat, snowmobile, aircraft, train or other motor vehicle when the driver is under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

A person who has been drinking can be convicted of impaired driving, even if their blood alcohol level is below the legal limit.

Source: Department of Justice Canada

the legal limit

Canadian law says the maximum allowable amount of alcohol in the bloodstream of a driver is 80 milligrams per 100 millimeters of blood.

Alcohol molecules flow through blood into the lungs. When a person blows into a breathalyser, these alcohol molecules are released and the concentration of alcohol in the blood can be measured. This is as accurate as a blood test.

Source: Transport Canada

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