HELENA – White crosses scatter Montana roads signifying motor vehicle deaths at the locations where the fatalities occurred. Many people view these markers as memorials for those who have passed; however, the American Legion White Marker Highway Fatality Program says the purpose is to educate the public on driver safety.
The program started in started in 1953. Since its origin, roughly 2,000 fatality markers have been displayed statewide and 134 in the Helena area.
The program is solely focused on automobile fatalities, not pedestrian fatalities.
White cross fatality markers signify the crash that occurred not the number of fatalities. If multiple crosses are present, then multiple crashes have taken place at that location.
The American Legion works alongside the Montana Department of Transportation.
Joshua Clement, Post #2 Commander to the American Legion for The Department of Montana, said that white cross fatality markers could change to recognizing pedestrian fatalities.
“If a vehicle was involved, whether it killed someone in the vehicle or a pedestrian, bicyclist, was killed, the maybe that’s something the secretary of public transportation will say, yes American Legion you are doing the right thing lets go ahead and expand that so people can share the roads properly and be safe on them,” said Clement
MTN’s Special Report looks at not only the white cross program but, also a Helena family who lost their son, in a pedestrian crash.
Janis Hazlit, a Montana native, wife and mother to four boys and a step-daughter, said she received the most gut wrenching call of her life late July 3, 2015.
“I got a phone call at 11:45 p.m. that Jessie was hit by a truck,” said Janis, mother of 17-year-old Jessie Hazlitt
Janis’ son had been hit by a truck in a Helena Valley residential neighborhood, while trying to get his bike out of the street. Jessie’s best friend Tanner was with him and witnessed the crash.
Jessie had to be flow by medical helicopter to Billings; he died the next day.
“The doctor came around and tapped Jessie on the shoulder and said, ‘Jessie, Jessie.’ The doctor checked his pulse…his heart, everything was gone and they stopped the ventilator. I just held him and cried and cried, I was scared. I didn’t know what to do, he was my angel, still my angel,” said Janis, now sobbing, as she recalled the horrific event.
Jessie’s memorial is not one installed or maintained by the American Legion, but Clement said that doesn’t mean Jessie’s death is any less important.
Families all across Montana add their own memorials on the roadside where their loved ones have been killed. These are not in any way associated with the white cross program itself.
The organization does clear the official white crosses of memorial items left by family members; Clement says it’s for the safety of the public.
“Community family members need to know, that when we clean off decorated White Cross Fatality Markers, it’s for their safety sake. We will bag those up teddy bears, orients, and memoires and leave them next to the marker but it won’t be on the marker. We are sympathetic to families, this why we do this. It’s a challenge to have to stay true to what the program means and respect the families,” added Clement.
The American Legion also does not manage personal memorials that family members display, but for the safety of the public and to maintain the clarity of the program, memorials are not allowed on the official crosses.
Clement said veterans predominately make up the volunteers who paint and cut the steal to make and maintain the fatality markers.
There is no tax money used to in making, removing or taking care of the crosses everything is volunteer based.
White Cross Fatality Markers have nothing to do with religious views not to conflict with church and state; they are merely a symbol of the fatalities.
For Jessie’s family and friends, the memorial they’ve created remains a connection to their son, brother and friend.
Janis said on the day of Jessie’s funeral, a group of kids from Jessie’s high school, Capital High, dropped of letters telling how Jessie had impacted their lives.
“I knew he had a huge heart my whole life but after him passing and hearing stories about how he helped a few people from not committing suicide and not cutting,” said Janis.
Janis said what keeps her going is her other children.
“Tell your kids every day that you love them, because I know I would give anything to have my son back,” she added.
Janis’ friend Jessica D’Arcy often stops by Jessie’s memorial, although she never met him, she feels like she knows him from all the stories Janis tell her.
“There’s never a right thing to say and you can’t fix the situation, but helping her through those moments is important to me as a friend,” said D’Arcy.
“Every day is a set of waves the waves…they get stronger and crash and fight every single day to be strong, because I know I have to be strong for my kids,” added Janis.
Just since the beginning of the year there have been 7 fatalities on Montana roads according to the Montana Department of Transportation.
Safety is of the utmost importance to the American Legion. Many fatalities are caused by high speeds, distracted driving and driving under the influence.
“The punishment doesn’t just go to the drunk driver, driver that’s texting…it goes to that loved one also. And that’s the unfortunate thing,” Clement added discussing the ramifications of driving unsafe.
He continued, “Speed limit markers are not an option, and they are not a goal, driving 80 mph is not a goal, drive at a safe speed.”
Drunk drivers cause many fatalities every year. The Montana Department of Transportation reminds everyone that “buzzed driving is drunk driving.”
You can visit The Montana Department of Transportation’s official website to safety tips for driving which include designating a driver and caution when driving in harsh weather conditions. The most recent fatality numbers are also updated on the website.
A memorial Facebook page has been set up for Jessie Hazlitt to view it click here.
For more information about the White Cross Fatality Markers Program click here.