Roadside signs come and go |

Roadside signs come and go

R.C. Liberali
Special to the Sky-Hi News
Grand County, Colorado, CO
The Colorado Department of Transportation memorial marker for Brian Pankau along U.S. 40 south of Granby. Byron Hetzler/Sky-Hi News
Byron Hetzler/Sky-Hi News | Sky-Hi News

“Signs, signs, everywhere signs, blockin’ out the scenery, bendin’ my mind. Do this, don’t do that, can’t you read the sign? –Five-Man Electrical Band

They seem to be everywhere.

Throughout Colorado, there are approximately 363 of them.

In Grand County alone, there are four, perhaps five.

Actually, nobody really knows … and, if they do, they are not telling.

Quietly and unceremoniously appearing one day – listing a name and a message – and, just as quietly and unceremoniously, simply disappearing, six years later.

The one that once memorialized the life of Caitlin Smith, located on the westbound side of US Highway 40, at the bottom of Berthoud Pass, was “there” one day, and “gone” another.

All that remains along the highway is a simple white cross, nailed high up in a tree, reading: “Caitlin Smith,” 09/06/91-01/03/04.”

Is this all that remains of this young girl? The Centennial resident who perished in a multi-car head-on wreck, just east of the entrance to the “Jane?”

In an early 2004 edition, this publication reported the wreck. Neither the names of the victims nor the details of the accident were listed.

And, for the last six years, just how many passing motorists noticed the roadside memorial sign, or the cross, nailed high in a tree? Today, Smith would be a 20 year-old woman-a college student, perhaps a mother, herself.

Official signs

At every spot, there will always be two signs. One will proclaim: “DON’T DRINK AND DRIVE;” “PLEASE DRIVE SAFELY;” PLEASE RIDE SAFELY;” or “PLEASE BUCKLE UP.”

The other: “IN MEMORY OF …”

It cites the name of the person who died there as a result of a traffic accident, a stark reminder to all who pass.

For the “DON’T DRINK AND DRIVE,” there are “special requirements.”

Those requirements, according to the Colorado Department of Transportation’s Jerry D. Miller, PE, program manager of the Roadside Memorial Sign Program/Staff Safety and Traffic Engineering Branch, are, “there must be a conviction of the driver involved in a fatal crash who was in violation of Colorado DUI laws, or a toxicology report must show the victim driver to have been in violation of Colorado’s DUI laws and only with the permission of the crash victim’s family members.”

The three others cover everything else.

Made, placed and erected by the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT), the signs are installed “on” or “nearby” the spot where the fatality happened.

According to Miller, “pursuant to state laws enacted in 1994 and 2004, the Colorado Department of Transportation’s Memorial Sign Program offers families an additional opportunity to honor and remember their loved ones who were victims of fatal crashes on a Colorado State Highway. CDOT will install memorial signs for traffic crash related fatalities at the request of an applicant who meets the commission and program criteria.”

In 1994, legislation was enacted to commemorate victims of DUI drivers and following, in 2004, another to commemorate other fatal crash victims-non-alcohol and drug related.

Miller explained: “For many years, the Colorado State Patrol, local law enforcement agencies and the Colorado Department of Transportation have made concerted efforts to take drunken drivers off the road before a traffic crash occurs.”

Unfortunately, and despite efforts, drunken drivers are involved in approximately 200 fatalities each year in Colorado.

According to Miller, “CDOT’s memorial signage program not only affords families of victims the opportunity to honor and remember their loved ones, they also serve as a stark reminder to drivers and their passengers alike to drive safe and sober.”

How to apply

Miller went on to explain the rules and procedures in applying for a memorial sign.

“A sign must be requested by the victim’s family or sponsor with the consent of the victim’s family and may only be installed on State highways. Signs installed on State highways that are located within a city or town require local government approval.”

He went on to explain that “no sign shall be installed on Interstate highways, but an alternative sign location for interstate fatalities may be considered on a State highway near the crash location.”

“When an application for a memorial sign is approved,” Miller said, “and most are approved, CDOT makes the sign in the sign shop. When completed, it is shipped, via common carrier, to the ‘Region’ for eventual placement. It is then installed by the highway maintenance crews, as part of their regular work routine.”

“Although CDOT charges the applicant $100, it does not come anywhere close to the estimated $800 each sign costs the department to build and install,” he explained.

“Since a large percentage of these signs sit at or above five thousand feet in elevation, due to the long term ultraviolet effects of sun fading, we remove them after six years and return them to the family,” he said.

“More often than not,” he said, “we will have to replace them during the six years – they fade, they get knocked-over, bumped by a passing snowplow, or they get run into and damaged.”

Because the signs are installed and removed as part of the highway maintenance crew’s regular work routine, the process never involves any type of ceremony.

They are just quietly appear one day, and then, disappear six years later.

Many times, the victim’s family and friends will decorate the supporting posts with flowers and garlands. “It’s their way of getting through the grief,” he explained. “And that’s OK, as long as the decorations do not become a distraction to passing motorists.”

“In rural parts of the state, especially in areas such as Grand County,” Miller said, “many of the victims are local residents. More often than not, the Department of Transportation employee who installs, replaces, or removes the sign, just might be a neighbor or a friend of the victim or the victim’s family. And when the six years is up and the sign is removed, that CDOT worker will go the extra mile and hand deliver the sign back to the family.”

Of the approximately 363 roadside memorial signs placed on Colorado highways, there are four (or five) in Grand County.

Actually, nobody – including Miller – really knows, and that number continually ebbs and flows.

Personal information

A request to the Colorado Department of Transportation for background information pertaining to the victims and the circumstances surrounding the accident were denied, due to “confidentiality and privacy issues.”

Miller explained that because the individual details contained in the accident reports taken and subsequently filed by the Colorado State Patrol are personal in nature, they simply couldn’t be disclosed for publication.

All that’s “out there,” prominently placed within the “public domain” is the where the sign is located and the person’s name.

Four on 40

All four of Grand County’s signs are located along US 40.

Carl Lee Herrera’s is on US 40 eastbound at mile marker 230, just on the outskirts of the Town of Winter Park.

An exhaustive search of the web provided no information whatsoever on Mr. Herrera, his life, or what happened to him.

Mr. Herrera, from Henderson, died on Nov. 29, 2005, in a motor vehicle accident in Winter Park.

Today, Herrera’s life (and death) is summed up with a mere green and white sign on the highway.

Once his six-year term is up, it (and he) will simply disappear forever.

A few miles along on US4 0, just west of the turnoff to Meadow Creek, at mile marker 224, stands Chris J. Maes’ sign.

An Internet search for Mr. Maes (unlike Mr. Herrera’s) proved more fruitful.

The 63 year-old Chris Maes (born 1948, died 2008) was, according to his family’s memorial website, “a loving husband, father and grandfather.”

Soon after learning that the family’s application had been approved by the Colorado Department of Transportation, the family posted the following, (

“Dear daddy, (and grandpa)

Our request with the state of Colorado was approved and in May a sign was erected at your accident site.

Along with remembering the greatest dad that ever lived, we wanted to send a positive message to Colorado motorists. __

Though you died despite wearing your seat belt, we will always remember that one of your final loving acts as a grandpa was to remind Brandon and Isiah to buckle their seat belts –words that very well saved their lives.

Our boys will never forget your love and neither will we. We chose to use your words of wisdom to help inspire road safety.”

Sign No. 3 sits along Highway 40, east of the entrance to SilverCreek/SolVista, (US 40, westbound, mile marker 193). It commemorates the life of 18-year-old Winter Park resident, Brian J. Pankau.

Placed immediately next to the CDOT sign sits a hand-painted, makeshift cross. On the “horizontal” axis, it reads: Brian (heart) Pankau and on the vertical, we (heart) you.

Apparently, according to a source who wished to remain unnamed, the popular Pankau was the Senior Class President at Middle Park High School. On the Friday before he was scheduled to graduate from high school, he was driving to school on a foggy morning and was involved in a head-on crash, resulting in his death.

Granby’s Matthew Wade Andries’ roadside memorial sign can be found between Parshall and Kremmling, westbound, at mile marker 193.

The accident was reported in the Sky-Hi News, Tuesday, Aug. 5, 2008, by Will Bublitz:

“A fatal accident closed U.S. Highway 40 between Parshall and Kremmling to through traffic for more than 3-1/2 hours on Tuesday.

“A head-on crash between two vehicles in the late morning forced the highway’s temporary closure as emergency crews and law enforcement officers worked to clear the accident scene. Traffic was redirected to local secondary roads until the highway was re-opened at 2:30 p.m.

“Killed in the accident was 28-year-old Matthew Andries of Granby who was pronounced dead at the scene…”

Always changing

These four roadside memorial signs, like all the 363 others in Colorado, will, one day, just simply disappear forever from the landscape.

Unfortunately and undoubtedly, others will replace them.

They appear and disappear within six years-standing, alongside the highways-serving as stark reminders of the tenuous nature of life itself.

Lest we not forget that all of these victims – Caitlin Smith, Carl Lee Herrera, Chris J. Maes, Brian J. Pankau and Matthew Wade Andries – all left behind family members and friends alike, all of who still mourn their passing.

Lest we also not forget all those folks who died on our roads; who do not have CDOT-placed roadside memorial signs.

One can only hope that when their “six year term” is up, and the signs returned to their still grieving loved ones, someone, besides them, will remember.

As well, remember CDOT’s ongoing mantra:

“Do this,” (drive carefully),

“Don’t do that,” (don’t drink-and-drive),

“Can’t you read the sign?”

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