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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.