Georgia verdict shocks advocates for pedestrians

  • Where a 4-year-old died

    Where a 4-year-old died

    This photo shows the bus stops on Austell Road and the path taken by Raquel Nelson and her children on their way to their apartment complex across the road. The "X" marks the spot where 4-year-old A.J. Nelson became victim of a hit-and-run driver.

    Source: Transportation For America

Philip Langdon
New Urban Network

It seems a blatant miscarriage of justice: A 4-year-old boy was killed in a hit-and-run highway accident, yet it's the boy's mother who is now facing up to three years in prison on a second-degree charge of "homicide by vehicle." 

The 30-year-old mother, Raquel Nelson, was trying to get her three children home on the evening of April 10, 2010, when their family outing turned disastrous.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports that the woman and her children had disembarked from a bus along 5-lane Austell Road in suburban Cobb County, directly across from Somerpoint Apartments, where they lived:

She and the children crossed two lanes and waited with other passengers on the raised median for a break in traffic. The nearest crosswalks were three-tenths of a mile in either direction, and Nelson wanted to get her children inside as soon as possible. A.J. [the 4-year-old] carried a plastic bag holding a goldfish they’d purchased.

“One girl ran across the street,” Nelson said. “For some odd reason, I guess he saw the girl and decided to run out behind her. I said, ‘Stop, A.J.,’ and he was in the middle of the street so I said keep going. That’s when we all got hit.”

The boy died of his injuries. The driver — a 42-year-old man who had been convicted of two previous hit-and-runs in 1997 — pleaded guilty to hit-and-run again, served a 6-month sentence, and was released last October, to spend the rest of his 5-year sentence on probation, the Journal-Constitution reported in another story. The driver admitted to having consumed "a little alcohol" earlier in the day, being prescribed pain medication, and being partially blind in his left eye.

Nelson, by contrast, was charged with homicide by vehicle, crossing a roadway elsewhere than at a crosswalk, and reckless conduct. Last week, six jurors — all of them middle-class whites who had never ridden a bus in metro Atlanta, according to David Goldberg of Smart Growth America — convicted Nelson, who is African-American. Sentencing is scheduled for July 26.

Why was she charged? The prevailing explanation is that it was irresponsible for her to have let the children cross at that intersection rather than leading the two boys and a girl — ages 3, 4, and 9 — three-tenths of a mile down the highway to a legal crosswalk, crossing there, and then walking another three-tenths of a mile on the other side of the road.

Blame the pedestrian

Cobb County seems to have a pattern of charging mothers whose children are killed while crossing a road somewhere other than at a designated crosswalk. In November 2008, Altamesa Walker was charged with involuntary manslaughter and reckless conduct after a 4-year-old daughter was killed when Walker and her four children tried to cross a different road — 1,055 feet away from the nearest crosswalk. 

Cobb County Solicitor Barry Morgan said of the Walker case, “There are rules about where you cross the street, and you want to make sure people follow the rules so tragic things don’t happen.” 

The official attitude — punish people who failed to trek to a distant crosswalk, even when the family is in mourning over the loss of a child — seems to resonate with many people in metro Atlanta, the Journal-Constitution reported:

The public has been unsympathetic to both women, especially in the blogosphere.

“Crosswalk or not, it is her responsibility to cross only when traffic is far enough away that she and her children can cross safely,” said an anonymous poster on a WXIA television blog after the April accident.

But advocates of pedestrian safety, among others, see this as a "blame the victim" phenomenon. 

Nelson, who does not own a car, has explained that she and her children had gone shopping that day because the next day was 4-year-old A.J.'s birthday. They had pizza, went to Walmart, and missed a bus, which made them an hour and a half late on the homeward trip. Thus, night had fallen by the time they stepped down from the bus. 

Crossing the road there was a bad decision, but, Goldberg notes, Nelson was doing the same as "her fellow bus riders, who crossed at the same time and place. ... she did what pedestrians will do every time – take the shortest reasonable path." 

He asks: 

What about the highway designers, traffic engineers, transit planners and land use regulators who allowed a bus stop to be placed so far from a signal and made no other provision for a safe crossing; who allowed – even encouraged, with wide, straight lanes – prevailing speeds of 50-plus on a road flanked by houses and apartments; who carved a fifth lane out of a wider median that could have provided more of a safe refuge for pedestrians; who designed the entire landscape to be hostile to people trying to get to work and groceries despite having no access to a car?

What we have here, Goldberg argues, "are 'accidents' waiting to happen, thanks to poor planning and dangerous designs." 

Sarah Goodyear, on the Grist blog, makes a similar argument and, like Goldberg, finds injustice:

It's partly about class and race. People who walk and use transit to get around are, in most parts of the country, lower-income than those who drive. Many are people of color. Transit riders and pedestrians are marginalized and looked down upon. In many places, transit service is meager and crappy, and the same can be said for pedestrian facilities. Cobb Community Transit, the service Nelson was riding, has cut service on many routes in the past few months. Who suffers most? Poor people. 

Should we really expect people to walk the equivalent of two or three blocks out of their way to find a crosswalk, then double back, in all kinds of weather? Sally Flocks, president and CEO of the Atlanta pedestrian advocacy organization PEDS, thinks that's wrongheaded and unrealistic.

Goodyear writes:

When I spoke to Flocks, she told me that the local transit agency, in its planning, acknowledges that one-quarter mile is too far to expect a person to voluntarily walk to get a transit stop. And yet they place their bus stops farther than that from the pedestrian facilities that allow people to cross the road in (relative) safety.

To anyone paying attention, it was obvious that people in Cobb County, like those anywhere else, need fairly direct routes to their destinations.

Says Goodyear:

But no planner saw fit to acknowledge it. No traffic engineer marked it with paint. No municipal official put a traffic signal there so that the humans could proceed safely along the route that everyone knew they would inevitably take.

Why not? Because it was too important for the cars to get through. The cars must not be inconvenienced. The cars must go faster. ...

All over America, there are roads that people cannot safely cross, and yet ... people do cross, because they have to get where they are going, and they won't walk a half mile out of their way (or more) to use a crosswalk that is often inadequate anyway (many fatal traffic incidents happen in crosswalks).

What's needed is a more responsible policy by governments and transportation departments — one that recognizes realities of human behavior and takes the safety of pedestrians as seriously as motorists' desires. 

The only up side of the Cobb County case is that it's receiving attention just as Congress is putting forward a new transportation bill. Under Chairman John Mica, a Republican from Winter Park, Florida, the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee has decided to eliminate dedicated funding for pedestrian improvements.

With children dying on unsafe suburban arterials, perhaps some of our representatives will think harder about whether pedestrian safety ought to be nothing more than an option, decided at the state level — a level where, unfortunately, pedestrian deaths are often blamed on those who get in the cars' way.