Opinion - Blame the road, not the victim

An environment built for automobiles punishes - and prosecutes - pedestrians

In April 2010, Raquel Nelson and her three children went out for pizza to celebrate a family member's birthday. Coming home, the family had to wait more than an hour for their bus to arrive. When the bus dropped them off across the street from their Cobb County apartment building, it was the first time that Nelson had to cross the highway with her children after dark.

The family crossed two lanes, reaching the median. But when 4-year-old A.J. saw another adult try to cross, he broke away from his mother and ran into the road. Nelson followed and a van plowed into them, killing A.J. and injuring Nelson and her 2-year-old daughter, then sped away.

When tracked down by police, Jerry Guy admitted to having drunk three beers and taken two prescription painkillers before the accident. He is mostly blind in his left eye and had been convicted for two previous hit-and-runs. After pleading guilty last year to hit-and-run, Guy served six months in prison and was released in October.

The story gets worse. Two weeks ago, a Cobb jury found Nelson guilty of second-degree vehicular homicide, reckless conduct and failing to yield when crossing outside a crosswalk. How can you be convicted of vehicular homicide when you weren't even driving?

It's true the Nelsons weren't in a crosswalk. But the stop where they exited the bus is located three-tenths of a mile, or nearly five football fields, from the nearest crosswalk. 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.

The prosecutor's decision to charge Nelson is outrageous. If he intended it as punishment, why bother? It's hard to imagine a stronger punishment than losing your child. If he wanted to set an example, he's delusional. Warning pedestrians to use crosswalks will not increase safety when no crosswalks are available within reasonable walking distance.

It's easy to point the finger at Guy. But the agencies responsible for designing roads also bear responsibility. Most arterial roads are designed for speeding traffic, not pedestrian safety. Each year in metro Atlanta, around 1,400 pedestrians are hit by motor vehicles, resulting in an average of 70 deaths.

For the metro region's transit users, the combination of wide roads, infrequent crosswalks and high speeds often has tragic outcomes. Despite the high number of fatalities, few public resources have been used to retrofit dangerous roads with pedestrian safety improvements.

The Atlanta region plans to spend billions on projects to shave a minute or two off a half-hour commute. But authorities expect transit riders and pedestrians to spend 20 extra minutes walking out of their way to cross the street.

Median refuge islands, improved lighting and traffic signals can transform our deadliest roads into places where people can safely access transit on foot, all with relatively small public investment. These improvements will quickly pay for themselves with lives saved, greater transit usage and better public health. On the other hand, expensive trials targeting the victim of a dangerous road and an impaired driver are a waste of taxpayer money.

Sally Flocks is president and CEO of PEDS, a nonprofit advocacy group pushing for safer streets for pedestrians.

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