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Sally FlocksBack to OpinionSally Flocks

Blame the road, not the victim

One Saturday in April 2010, Raquel Nelson and her three children went out for pizza to celebrate a family member’s birthday. Since they didn’t have a car, they took the bus.

Public transit service is infrequent on weekends in Nelson’s town in Cobb County, Ga., and the family had to wait more than an hour for their bus to arrive. When that bus dropped them off across the street from their apartment building, it was the first time that Nelson had to cross the highway with her children after dark.

The family crossed two lanes and made it to the highway median safely. But when 4-year-old A.J. Nelson saw another adult attempting to finish crossing, he broke away from his mother and ran into the road. Nelson followed, trying to keep him safe.

As they crossed, a van plowed into them, killing A.J. and injuring Nelson and her 2-year-old daughter. The van’s driver, Jerry Guy, sped away.

But it wasn’t Guy who was convicted of homicide. Instead, Raquel Nelson was convicted last week of vehicular homicide in the second degree, for failing to yield when crossing outside a crosswalk and for reckless conduct.

Nelson could now spend more time in jail than Guy, who confessed to drinking three or four beers and taking prescription pain medications prior to driving. Guy, who is blind in his left eye, also had two previous hit-and-run convictions, both on the same day in 1997.

After A.J. Nelson was killed, Guy was initially charged with vehicular homicide, cruelty to children and hit-and-run. But after pleading guilty to hit-and run, the other charges were dropped. After serving six months in prison, he was released in October. Raquel Nelson now faces up to 36 months in prison.

How do you get convicted of vehicular homicide when you weren’t even driving a car?

It’s true that the Nelsons were not in a crosswalk when they attempted to cross the street. But the stop where they exited the bus is located three-tenths of a mile from the nearest crosswalk, the equivalent of three city blocks. Nelson’s decision to cross where the bus let her family and neighbors off was hardly a “gross deviation from the standard of care which a reasonable person would exercise in the situation,” as the charges against her claim.

It’s easy to point the finger at Guy. But the agencies that designed the roads and located bus stops also bear responsibility for this crash. In the section of Austell Road approaching Austell Circle, where the bus stop was located, the installation of a left turn lane had increased the width of the four-lane divided highway to five lanes. It also narrowed the median to just three feet.

On the night of the crash, everyone who exited the bus made it to the median safely. If the bus stop had been located just 140 feet to the north, the family would have been standing on a 16-foot-wide median as it waited for a safe gap in traffic. This would have given Nelson a much better chance of controlling her son as they waited to cross. In addition, the final leg of their crossing would have been two lanes instead of three.

When Guy’s vehicle hit A.J. Nelson, it was in the lane closest to the sidewalk. If the bus stop had been located properly, the child probably would have made it to the sidewalk by the time Guy sped by.

Decades of neglecting pedestrian safety in the design of state roads exacts a heavy toll. Each year in metro Atlanta, some 1,400 pedestrians are hit by motor vehicles, resulting in 1,000 pedestrian injuries and 70 pedestrian deaths. In 2009, pedestrians accounted for one out of five traffic fatalities in the ten-county region.

For people on foot, the combination of wide roads, infrequent crosswalks and high speeds often has tragic outcomes. Research by the Atlanta Regional Commission (ARC) suggests that people who walk to transit are among the region’s most vulnerable road users. From 2004 to 2008, one-fourth of all pedestrian crashes occurred within 100 feet of transit stops.

Research by the ARC confirmed that four out of five transit trips end with walking trips. Despite the high number of fatalities and the interdependence of transit and walking, few public resources have been used to retrofit dangerous roads with pedestrian safety improvements. On most state highways in the region’s suburbs, crosswalks are few and far between.

Like other metropolitan areas throughout the U.S., Cobb County needs to transform outdated roads that were designed for cars only into complete streets that serve all modes of travel safely. Creating a better environment for pedestrians requires a relatively small public investment, which will quickly pay for itself with lives saved, greater transit usage, and better public health. Even at locations without marked crosswalks, moving bus stops to areas with wide medians can increase safety dramatically. Improved signals and lighting can also help transform our deadliest roads into places where people can safely access transit on foot. On the other hand, expensive trials targeting the victim of a dangerous bus stop location and an impaired driver are a waste of taxpayer money.

Sally Flocks is the president and CEO of PEDS, an advocacy organization dedicated to making metro Atlanta safe and accessible for all pedestrians.


  • Bhall2345a

    Raquel Nelson and her three children  do NOT have a car therefor they are forced to utilized the public transit system.  Late at night, Im sure the main focus of Ms. Nelson was to get her family safely home.  I surely would NOT walk 6/10 mile up the road to crosswalk and back again alone OR with children.
    What about HAVING CONTROL of your motor vechicle AT ALL TIMES?  THIS IS OUTRAGEOUS!    The van’s driver, Jerry Guy, NOT ONLY killed the child but ALSO left the scene of the accident.  FAILING to provide aid to the victims.  
    If there was any  “gross deviation from the standard of care which a reasonable person would exercise in the situation,”  IT SURELY IS WITH the van driver Jerry Guy  and NOT the mother Raquel Nelson.
    I have always been told to believe in the best system of justice in the world…NOW I’m not so sure.
    If any US citizen does not CRY LOUDLY for PROPER JUSTICE then I pray that  theydon’t fall prey to the same form of justice they permitted in COBB COUNTY.

    B H
    Pittsburgh, PA


  • Sally Flocks

    At the sentencing hearing today, Raquel Nelson was assigned to 1 year probation and 40 hours community service. She was also given the opportunity for a new trial, if desired.

  • Hmasonhicks

    I am a former Atlantan, now living abroad; and I’m happy to call Sally Flocks a friend. However, I must add that this is not just about misplaced priorities of street and transit design as Sally so eloquently pointed out, and of which I care about very much; but it is also a pointed reminder of major flaws that exist in our legal system… Please forgive me; I am making some admittedly broad assumptions. But given that Raquel Wilson is a minority, and does not own a car, I assume that she also did not have the resources to afford effective legal counsel. I believe the ridiculous trial verdict testifies to my assumption. The state of the indigent legal defense in Georgia is notorious; and its pathetic level of funding is still facing further cuts… I have heard that having indigent defense representation in Georgia is often worse than having no defense representation at all… Sometimes, public defenders are only able to spend a half-hour on a defendant’s entire case preparation. I strongly suspect that had the Cobb County Prosecutor been faced with a valid legal defense counsel he would not have pursued this bully-driven prosecution strategy. Trying to account for screwing-up the prosecution of the 3rd time hit-and-run inebriated driver by going after the mother of the victim is dishonorable and inexcusable. The facts of the matter, such as what Sally Flocks presented here, and that has been punctuated by planning and sustainable urbanism blogs across the nation should have been presented in depth, in her trial… The “trained professionals” who located a bus stop three city blocks away from a cross-walk should have had to sit in the witness stand and answer these questions. I learned the meaning of the term “standard of care” very early in my career as an architect. Why SHOULDN’T it apply to them as well?

  • Bu247365

    How sad is this story?!!! Unfortunately, it is happening everywhere.  We had something similar happen here in North Carolina. While reading your post I was looking for the story that I had happened upon while visiting my daughter at work, I drove through an area where the police was taping off the roadway. I checked out the news to see what had happened.

    Your story moved me so, that I wanted to share this little boys story too. While searching for the story I came across many more of these hit and runs or wrongfully charged pedestrians. How sad.

    Here is this baby’s story:

  • Cholling

    I despise jaywalkers who cross in the middle of a street placing
    themselves and drivers at risk or against a controlled crosswalk .

    I live in California, a world away from Ga., and without knowing the area, cannot judge why the stop was placed so far away from a marked crosswalk.
    Here in the west, a pedestrian or driver is to consider any intersection valid as a crosswalk, marked or not, so if she was crossing from the corner of the intersection, she would be considered to be legal and the driver wholly at fault.

  • gurlcat

    Guy “confessed to drinking three or four beers…”  –When someone confesses to three or four, they probably really drank five or six (or eight, or twelve).  Was he not breath tested???   Combine that with prescription drugs, a past hit and run and hitting and running CHILDREN in this case, and I’d say you’ve got someone who not only should have been the only party held culpable here, but also a man who should have his license taken away PERMANENTLY.  

  • Marnie Sadri

    The judicial system is more about battles between rich and poor rather than right and wrong.  Having a graduate degree in social work and years of experience working with the less fortunate, I have seen this time and again.  Raquel Wilson is grieving for the loss of her precious child and the man responsible should not have been allowed to drive (based on his history presented here).  Ms. Wilson likely did not have the funds for a “really good” lawyer who cared about her case.  By the way, for those of you who do not know: a “really good lawyer” is one who knows the judge well and is well liked by the judge and costs at least $300 per hour.  They only last as long as the money lasts.

  • Sally Flocks

    Guy fled the scene, probably too avoid a breath test. When they caught him the next day, it was too late to detect alcohol.

  • Sally Flocks

    Unlike other states, Georgia law interprets T-shaped intersections as though no unmarked crosswalks across the top of the T. Due to that, the location she crossed was not considered an intersection. In the Atlanta suburbs, marked crosswalks and 4-way intersections are often over 1/2 mile apart. In the summer, the heat index often exceeds 100 degrees. It is unreasonable to expect pedestrians to walk over 1/4 mile to cross the street. It is also legal for pedestrians to cross outside a crosswalk, as long as you yield to drivers.