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The cold, hard truth about roadside memorials

Published October 22, 2012
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Dave Gerson is a top-notch mechanic whom I often turn to when readers have a difficult automotive problem to solve. He, along with brother Peter, have quietly operated GB Auto in Thornhill for over 20 years.

At least, things were quiet until Saturday, Oct. 13. That’s the date The Star ran a story on improvised roadside memorials and the man who took it upon himself to repeatedly dismantle one because of the painful memories it evoked in him.

That man was Dave Worgan who, besides having the same first name, also bears a striking resemblance to Gerson – who’s been feeling misdirected “heat” from the public ever since the article ran.

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“That weekend, I kept getting long piercing stares from strangers everywhere I went,” says Gerson. “I thought maybe I had a ‘kick me’ sign on my back or something.”

It wasn’t until he saw Worgan’s photo in The Star that everything made sense. “Even I thought it was a picture of me at first,” admits Gerson.

While nobody has confronted him so far, the unnerving stares continue. “Maybe I’ll stick to rustproofing for a while and keep my air mask on, so people can’t see my face,” laughs Gerson.

Incidentally, reader comments to the original article were surprisingly split. While many felt the public should tolerate impromptu memorials in deference to the grieving family’s feelings, the normally-silent majority expressed that the appropriate and respectful place for honouring lost ones is the cemetery, not a highway ditch, and there should be a time limit on such roadside distractions.

As for legality, the cold, harsh truth is that any materials abandoned on public property could technically be considered litter and disposing of such is no crime. If placed on private property, the owner has every right to remove materials.

Ministry of Transportation policy is to tolerate roadside memorials on highways, provided they don’t pose a hazard. Overpass banners etc. that may fall on traffic below are relocated. Temporary displays no longer maintained are removed.

Keep in mind though that visiting a makeshift memorial on a high-speed expressway is dangerous and could, at police discretion, invite a charge of “pedestrian on restricted highway” (with speed limit over 80 km/h).

In Toronto, temporary memorials on public property may remain for 30 days provided they don’t interfere with traffic (e.g. obstruct sidewalk or block driver sightlines), don’t contain racist or offensive material, and don’t spark complaints from adjacent land owners. Open fires, including unattended lit candles, are prohibited.

Permanent memorials, such as a tree or bench with plaque etc., require city approval. The applicant must pay all costs involved.

As a final word, my foremost concern is with the living. Drivers often park illegally on main roads and highways to visit roadside memorials. This presents a hazard to everyone as even police, with all emergency lights activated, are sometimes hit and killed at roadside.

If you can’t visit the cemetery, perhaps offering online condolences is your best, and safest, option.

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