For Communication Studies Professor Bob Bednar, family vacations for the past eight years have been more than just road trips. They also have been research expeditions.
Bednar has traveled throughout the southwestern United States and Mexico to document the cultural representation of lost lives displayed in roadside car crash shrines. He was inspired to delve into this research after he noticed so many shrines along the road while traveling throughout the southwestern states, particularly New Mexico.
“Arizona has one road with more than 100 shrines in 100 miles of road,” Bednar said.
After one of his early trips in 2003, Bednar published an article titled “Making Space on the Side of the Road: Towards a Cultural Study of Roadside Car Crash Memorials.” After writing this first article, the project became larger than he had planned. Bednar developed a desire to analyze the elements of the car crash shrines over time. Some include pieces of the vehicle; some include photos and teddy bears. Shrines are occasionally re-decorated for holidays and anniversaries and most of them deteriorate over time, Bednar said.
One particular shrine Bednar visited had a Tasmanian devil stuffed animal tied onto it when he first saw it in 2006. The stuffed animal’s eyebrows turned from black to gray when Bednar returned to the same site in 2010. “The shrines take over the lives of car crash victims, but they also eventually die,” Bednar said.
Bednar has almost finished compiling his writings and photos in a book called Road Scars: Trauma, Memory, and Automobility, which he expects to be completed by the end of the 2011-2012 school year. He is writing an initial draft of the final chapter of the book this summer.
“The shrines are situated in an automobile landscape where people are driving − doing exactly what the people were doing when they died. It is interesting to me,” Bednar said.
Bednar’s travel companions have included his wife, Danielle Hayes, his daughter, Anika, and his son, Lukas. “My kids have grown up with this book,” Bednar said.
Bednar took a sabbatical in the fall of 2007 to concentrate on writing the initial draft of the book and conducting a cross-cultural study of shrines in Mexico and the United States. He said he hopes the book helps readers gain an awareness of the consequences reckless driving can have on the culture as a whole.
“Culturally, these shrines represent the work individuals are doing to help all of us understand the cost of automobility,” he said.
Bednar graduated from Southwestern in 1989 and returned to join the faculty in 1999 after earning his master’s degree and Ph.D. from The University of Texas at Austin. This fall he will again be serving as chair of the Communication Studies Department.