A new University of Calgary study explored Calgarian's reactions to flowers, photographs, stuffed animals taped to lampposts, street signs and crosses erected on Albertan streets and highways as tributes to lives lost in traffic and pedestrian collisions.
This unique research wasn't conducted by psychologists, sociologists or nurses who deal with loss and grieving. It was conducted by engineers.
Schulich School of Engineering road safety chair Dr. Richard Tay oversaw the project. He believes the reason a study like this has not been conducted in the past by engineers is simple.
"It's a very emotional thing," said Tay. "Engineers are not very comfortable dealing with emotional issues."
Last year, one of Tay's students completed a master's thesis comparing the current roadside memorial policies across Canada. Students sent surveys to several municipalities asking about their policy and how they reached it.
According to the survey, these policies vary widely from explicitly allowing roadside memorials to case-by-case review to outright banning. In Alberta, use of memorials is "discouraged, but not enforced."
In another study last year, researchers placed traffic sensors about two kilometres apart next to a roadside memorial on Highway 2 to measure the effect on traffic before and after.
"In that study we found very little difference," said Tay. "There was really no difference in driver behavior, speed or following distance."
Tay attributed this lack of variance to highway straightness and road conditions.
For the recent study, memorials were set up at several locations and researchers studied drivers' violations with help from Calgary Police. It also included a public opinion survey to discover what sort of policy the public supports and why.
"We'd like to see what public perception is like," said Tay. "We want both the hard data that we can collect in terms of speed and following distance and red light running and violations. We also want to know what people think."
Tay teaches an introduction to road safety course, which is the only undergraduate class in road safety in the world. He will present the findings with recommendations to the city at the end of the month.
"Knowing just one side of things doesn't make you a complete engineer," he explained. "The engineer must also know a bit about the people who use the road. You cannot design without understanding what the user requires."
Tay understands the need of family and friends to grieve, but says anything left by the side of the road is the responsibility of the road engineer.
"The road maintenance crew has to decide what to do with this thing," said Tay. "Unless you have an official policy, they don't know what to do."
At this time, Calgary does not have official roadside memorial policy.