Roadside flowers and plaques for accident victims multiply as shrine culture takes hold of Britain

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Take a drive along a main road and before long you will find a crucifix, a metal plaque fixed to a tree or maybe just a bunch of flowers with a handwritten note of tribute.

Take a drive along a main road and before long you will find a crucifix, a metal plaque fixed to a tree or maybe just a bunch of flowers with a handwritten note of tribute.

Private shrines to accident victims, long associated with the winding roads of the Catholic Mediterranean, have silently become the norm in Protestant Britain.

So surprising is the growth in roadside memorials that no one has yet collected figures for the number springing up - often at accident black spots.

Now local authorities have for the first time acknowledged their arrival, accepting they may have to take measures to curb the trend if the shrines continue to proliferate in hedgerows and verges.

"The danger is that there could be a rush of these things and that would require a longer-term view by local councils," said John Findlay, chief executive of the National Association of Local Councils.

The shrines cannot be explained by the accident rate - deaths on Britain's road have been steadily dropping.

The type of victim may provide a clue, however: Britain's road accident rate for children is the worst in Europe and, with one child being killed every other day, they are the biggest single cause of deaths of children aged one to 15.

But the trend not only to marks accidental deaths: a report of a child's murder is now routinely accompanied by images of grieving classmates laying flowers at the scene - as witnessed on a large scale with Sarah Payne, who was buried last week.

Such displays have also become more widespread since the death of Stephen Lawrence, whose permanent memorial lies at the place of his fatal stabbing in New Eltham, south London. In Somers Town, Camden, a plaque on a wall marks the site of 15-year-old Richard Everitt's fatal stabbing in 1994.

The trend also pre-dates the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, three years ago last week - the anniversary has again seen flowers laid in large numbers at her former residence at Kensington Palace.

The shrines may be linked to an underlying spirituality, according to Tom Horwood, a spokesman for the Catholic Church in England and Wales. "Even if more of us aren't going to church we can't get away from the Christian culture," he said. "Even if people have forgotten what the cross meant to Jesus we still know it is something sacred. It's not treated flippantly.

"You see the same thing when people cross themselves before a flight, even though there's a fair chance they're not religious."

Mr Horwood added: "There are so many things stored up by grief that this physical demonstration can be helpful. In a road accident there are few people who know about it so you don't get the huge outpouring that came with Diana but people still want to do something."

The appearance of such shrines in Britain is all the more surprising since the tradition is alien to Protestant cultures. They are contrastingly common in Spain, parts of Austria and much of South America.

The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents believes there are important safety messages to be drawn from the trend. "The increase in the number of shrines just highlights how dangerous our roads are," said a spokeswoman.

But the society is concerned that the shrines may themselves increase the risk of accidents. "It isn't something we would like people to stop doing but it's important they take extra care. The same applies to motorists because it's easy for them to take their eyes off the road for even a second."