T4America Responds to the Raquel Nelson Case in the Washington Post

The first shocking thing about Raquel Nelson’s conviction for vehicular homicide was simply that it happened at all. After all, the mother of three wasn’t even driving a car — she was crossing a wide street with poor pedestrian infrastructure when her four-year-old son was killed by a hit-and-run driver.

Image: The Today Show

The second shocking thing about the case was that it captured so much media attention. Sure, Streetsblog was going to cover it. But the Today Show? Fox News?

As encouraging as it was to see so much mainstream broadcast media focused on Nelson’s case — and all in a sympathetic light — little of that coverage got to the root of the problem: dangerous street design in auto-centric communities.

So we’re glad to see the Washington Post remedying that situation by printing an op-ed by David Goldberg, communications director at Transportation for America. In his piece yesterday, Goldberg said:

Nelson was found guilty of killing her son by crossing the road in the “wrong” place. But what about the highway designers, traffic engineers, transit planners and land-use regulators who placed a bus stop across from apartments but made no provision whatsoever for a safe crossing? Those who ignored the fact that pedestrians always take the shortest possible route but somehow expected them to walk six-tenths of a mile out of their way to cross the street? Those who designed this road — which they allowed to be flanked by apartments and houses — for speeds of 50 mph and more? And those who designed the entire landscape to be hostile to people trying to get to work or carrying groceries despite having no access to a car? Are they not culpable?

This phenomenon is not unique to metro Atlanta. Transportation for America researched 10 years’ worth of pedestrian fatalities nationwide and found this pattern again and again. The bodies line up like soldiers along certain corridors — the first clue that the roadway is not designed for the safety of the pedestrians who are obviously using the road.

Goldberg said that the problem is especially severe in inner-ring suburbs that were designed with the assumption that there would never be a reason for anyone to try to get anywhere without an automobile. But that assumption has broken down. Sometimes it breaks down along income lines, as people like Raquel Nelson can’t afford a car. T4America has brought attention recently to the fact that it can break down along age lines, with the elderly unable to drive and finding themselves with few alternatives.

In some places around the country, these car-dominated suburbs are trying to change. Here in the D.C. area, Tysons Corner is engaged in a decades-long process of trying to increase density, improve walkability, and create an honest-to-goodness street life in an area where people used to drive from shopping mall parking lot to shopping mall parking lot. But these suburban retrofits are the exception, not the rule. And in the time it’ll take to make Tysons a pedestrian-friendly “edge city,” Raquel Nelson’s children will have children of their own.

But that doesn’t let the Cobb County DOT, or any other jurisdiction, off the hook for making pedestrians safer today. As Goldberg writes in the Post, “One crosswalk with traffic signals would save more lives, and in all likelihood cost less money, than this hurtful prosecution cost the taxpayers of Georgia. Fixing thousands of these deadly mistakes across the country would, in the long run, save both lives and dollars.”

Members of Congress are now home for their month-long recess. When they come back, they’ll have less than three weeks to figure out what to do before the current transportation reauthorization — and, coincidentally, the gas tax — expires. The short amount of time means Congress will likely either patch together a solution far too hastily, or they’ll punt, kicking the can down the road till a future, undetermined date when they can consider the question more fully. Let’s hope that they give transportation the time and attention it needs sooner than later — and that when they do, they’ll think about more than just budget deficits and highway revenues. Let’s hope they think about Raquel Nelson’s son and realize that pedestrian safety is a national priority, and that it comes cheaper than inaction.

  • Nick Wood

    It is a litte misdirected to blame engineers and planners 

  • Nick Wood

    It is a litte misdirected to blame engineers and planners who cannot directly pass legislation and provide funding for programs.  Only policymakers are capable of establishing policy, so they should be the ones to blame.  Can engineers and planners override the Georgia State Constitution by directing gas tax funds to non-highway purposes?  No.  Any change in policy has to come from the top.

  • Clutch J

    Really? It was the traffic engineers who developed the standards for roadway design, who established the principle (Level of Service) that places auto throughput over all other possible outcomes of roadway design. Transportation engineering, with hundreds of thousands of needless deaths on its hands, is right there with tobacco production and gun manufacturing as among the most discredited professions in American history.

  • Clutch, if you read the Highway Capacity Manual, that is absolutely not true. Pedestrians and bicyclists have been included in the HCM since the beginning, and the 2010 HCM goes more multimodal than ever before. The problem actually is a lack of freeways and controlled access roadways, burdening arterials with more traffic than they ever were designed for. Long distance travel should have its own roadways, and not there dangerous country roads that have been widened to three lanes in each direction, with little elimination of driveways or provision for pedestrians and bicyclists.

  • Anonymous

    Placement of traffic signals, crosswalks, and other fundamental roadway features does not require legislation or an override of the state constitution. I don’t think Goldberg is saying that the planners are directly and fully responsible for what happened. But if you create a situation that strongly encourages risky behavior, and then someone gets hurt, it’s not uncommon to put at least partial blame on those that set up the situation in the first place. It’s called negligence. Sadly, there is plenty of blame to go around in this case.

  • Nick Wood

    In Cobb County, you do need public approval on a referendum before appropriating sales taxes for transportation programs.  Transportation engineers and planners may initially propose projects, but the final decision usually rests with elected officials and the public.

    In deciding to place the 2012-2015 SPLOST (special local option sales tax) referendum before voters, the Cobb County Board of Commissioners (elected officials making the final decision, not engineers and planners) decided that funding should be split the following way:

    INFRASTRUCTURE PRESERVATION $ 103,633,000•  Infrastructure improvements to bridges and drainagesystems, resurfacing of deteriorating roads.PEDESTRIANS 15,500,000•  Improved pedestrian safety through the addition ofsidewalks near schools and to fill in sidewalk gaps.TRANSIT $ 8,000,000•  Transit projects will provide more park and ride lotsand other transit enhancements along Cobb ParkwayCorridor.CONGESTION RELIEF AND THOROUGHFARES $ 55,700,000•  Congestion relief will include road widening toincrease capacity and traffic management technology/signal upgrades.SAFETY AND OPERATIONAL $ 68,052,000•  Projects will focus on school zones and intersections,addition of turn lanes, elimination of sight distanceproblems as well as widened lanes and shoulders.Source: http://www.cobbsplost2011.org/Considering the text directly from the Board of Commissioners, if a specific sidewalk is not near a school – it will not be built.  If all $15.5 million is spent on other pedestrian-related projects and an engineer or planner wants to spend additional funds on a sidewalk – it can’t be done because a pact on dispersement was already made with the voting public.  Take a look at the Cobb County SPLOST website for a map of project locations to see how the investment for pedestrians is limited.  Another example:  The project list for the Atlanta Region Transportation Act (another voter referendum) is currently being vetted for final approval.  The individuals making the final cut are local elected officials – not planners or engineers.  The composition of the panel can be found at: http://www.atlantaregionalroundtable.com/roundtable.html.Engineers and planners have a lot less sway with influencing the built environment as some may suggest.

  • Nick Wood

    I do think that some blame can be shared with almost every group, engineers and policymakers alike.  My intent was to highlight the complexities surrounding the issue.  The real question is how to move forward.


Raquel Nelson Likely to Opt For a New Trial, Her Lawyer Says

UPDATE 7/27: Raquel Nelson has, in fact, chosen the option of a new trial. The last thing the jury heard from Raquel Nelson’s defense lawyer, before they convicted her, was the tape of her frantic 911 call after her son, A.J., was hit by a car. “1-2-3-4-5-6, doing chest compressions on her son, screaming,” recalls […]