American Legion hopes to keep up highway safety program in Montana

MISSOULA, Mont. - Since 1957, white crosses dot the highways of Montana, each marking the spot where a fatal accident took place. It was started by the American Legion after six people died in crashes near Missoula during one Labor Day weekend. The non-profit says it's very effective, but doesn't know how long they will be able to keep up with the highway safety program.

The American Legion estimates more 2,000 crosses mark fatal accidents along the highways of Big Sky Country, meaning a lot of people are driving past them every day.

Jim Kelly, Highway Fatality Marker District Five Coordinator says, "People have a tendency to be startled when they come around the corner and there's a white cross, resulting in them slowing down. For some it's a reverence type of thing."

The American Legion creates the crosses with metal and does the upkeep. Jim Kelly has been helping for about eight years, and says these markers are effective because of the meaning behind them.

"It's not just a fatality. It's not something in my database. Each fatal wreck becomes very personal to the family, first responders, you know even the community that they were in,” explains Kelly.

Kelly says a lot of the crosses are rusting and getting worn, American Legion Posts are closing, and he doesn't know how long the program will last.

He adds, "A lot of the posts are getting older in the sense that hey I'm seventy-five and I came out of Vietnam, so you know new people aren't joining. So as the posts age, we don't have the personnel to keep it going."

Kelly says that their short-term goal is to recruit younger veterans to help.

The Montana Highway Patrol says there have been 63 highway fatalities this year. The American Legion says it's important to note that not all highway fatalities are marked because not all of the posts in Montana participate in the program. They also say that some families request a marker not be placed, or the crosses are removed for highway construction.