We Must Change How We Talk about Pedestrian Deaths

Kaitlin Marie Hunt and her three-month-old daughter Riley were killed by an 18-year-old SUV driver in 2017. Photo: Hunt family via  Atlanta Journal Constitution
Kaitlin Marie Hunt and her three-month-old daughter Riley were killed by an 18-year-old SUV driver in 2017. Photo: Hunt family via Atlanta Journal Constitution

She wasn’t texting. She wasn’t drunk. She wasn’t speeding. But 18-year-old Zoe Reardon still killed three people with her Jeep in Atlanta two years ago, including a mother and her 3-month-old baby.

That was the defense, anyway, offered by her attorney in a criminal trial that ended yesterday. And it mostly prevailed.

Reardon faced nine charges, including vehicular manslaughter, but was sentenced to just 36 months probation — no jail time — and a year’s license suspension. She will be allowed to continue attending college in Texas.

Responses to the decision have been divided. Some people on Twitter called the light sentence an example of white privilege. Other said, while the situation was sad, jail time didn’t seem appropriate. It was dark after all, the argument goes. And the victims, Kaitlin Marie Hunt, her daughter, Riley, and their 61-year-old family friend, weren’t in a crosswalk.

But there were no streetlights or crosswalks where Hunt was walking to a concert in suburban Woodstock, Georgia, WSB Atlanta noted. Cell phone records show Reardon texted her father about two minutes before the crash.

Regardless of the specifics of the case, it raises interesting questions about drivers responsibility for pedestrians’ safety — and how low the bar has been set. What is the appropriate punishment for someone who unintentionally causes great harm with a car?

The framing advanced by Reardon’s lawyers — which is typical in these kinds of cases — is harmful. People who kill someone with a car — as long as they’re not drunk — are unlikely to ever face charges in the first place, much less be convicted or serve jail time. A 2015 Transportation Alternatives investigation [PDF] found that less than 7 percent of drivers who caused a death in New York City were charged with vehicular homicide.

There is very little accountability for drivers. In this case, Reardon only had to show she was not texting, not drunk, and not speeding. Meanwhile, pedestrians are faulted for not doing things that go above and beyond their legal requirements: like wearing bright clothing, or walking after dark. (Although in this case it was dusk, not even night.)

Furthermore, presumptions about the driver’s behavior reflect a false dichotomy between intentional violence with a car and innocent mistakes, an “unavoidable accident,” as Reardon’s attorneys called it. Some accidents may truly be unavoidable due to freak circumstances or vehicular malfunction, but most are eminently avoidable by merely exercising reasonable car and attentiveness. There are a range of behaviors for drivers between total innocence and intentional harm. These behaviors include failing to slow down when pedestrians are present, cutting corners at intersections, even bullying pedestrians at crosswalks.

Of course, it may be difficult to reconstruct this behavior during a criminal trial in many cases. But Reardon’s defense raises logical questions. How does someone who is being attentive and driving at a safe speed — as her attorneys claim — completely fail to see three pedestrians in the road? Wouldn’t an attentive driver have been able to slow down enough to avoid at least hitting them at a lethal speed? Women carrying babies don’t move that fast.

Certainly, this is only one case, but it’s yet another opportunity for a more sensitive conversation about a national health emergency that took the lives of more than 6,000 people last year.

And it will always be a missed opportunity if drivers continue to receive the message that their responsibility to pedestrians begins and ends with not being drunk. We need to look out for one another on the roads, especially people who are very vulnerable. This case is just an extreme example of what can go wrong when we don’t. It’s sad that we might take the wrong lessons from it.

48 thoughts on We Must Change How We Talk about Pedestrian Deaths

  1. Two ideas: Could local officials who refuse to spend money on sidewalks, lighting, and speeding enforcement ever be held CRIMINALLY, not civilly, liable for pedestrian murders?
    Also, how about fighting crime with crime–for every pedestrian death legalize auto theft, arson, and vandalism for 30 days in that zip code. Drivers and the public officials that spoil them need to feel some pressure.

  2. Plus there’s the discourse about if the pedestrian was outside a crosswalk, then drivers are entitled to a free vehicular homicide.

  3. People in the dark are hard to see. Spotting people where you don’t expect them, because of a lack of crosswalks in the dark is hard. Asking pedestrians to change into a bright outfit for walking at night is ridiculous. I put most of them blame on the city for not installing proper infrastructure.

  4. Jail time is not necessary. We should focus on making sure this doesn’t happen again: Take away her license forever. Improve the infrastructure to force drivers to slow down and pay attention, and reduce crossing distances for pedestrians.

  5. We need presumptive liability laws – as exist in Europe – that presume the motorist is at fault and will face full prosecution unless can show that was not at fault. That way motorists are on notice that they must exercise full control and caution. As it is now motorists are not worried about their liability and so too much recklessness occurs.

  6. “How does someone who is being attentive and driving at a safe speed — as her attorneys claim — completely fail to see three pedestrians in the road? ” Excellent question ! Color, back-lighting, movement all MIGHT explain. So why don’t pedestrians have a legal responsibility to wear light or reflective clothing at night, or carry a lantern of some kind? And I might also ask, how does a loving and attentive mother, knowing she and her child are in a vulnerable position – mid block, no cross-walk, at night – not see an on-coming vehicle with headlights on, and attempt to get out of its path ? Accidents DO happen. The wise person takes care to protect himself, rather than relying upon others to look out for him. Because 2-ton vs 200 lbs trumps right vs wrong. Common sense helps. “Can I be seen?” . I get your point. But I have seen way too much (and growing) STUPID pedestrian and bicyclist behavior to agree with putting myself (as a driver) at increased legal risk.

  7. Nice try but the fault lies with the driver if they are driving too fast to see people in the road. The solution to almost every challenging visibility problem is to simply slow down. It is unrealistic to expect all pedestrians to wear high visibility clothing or lanterns. However it is realistic to expect drivers to operate their heavy machinery with due caution given the situation. So realistic that it is the law.

  8. At least as I understand, the European laws you’re likely thinking of apply to civil cases, not necessarily criminal. They affect insurance claims, etc…, not jail time. US tort law does embrace the concept of “strict liability” in places. The question is why drivers get a pass when operation of a car clearly qualifies as a sufficiently dangerous activity?

  9. Great articulation of the old “rape victim asked for it because of the way she dressed” argument. If that seems unfair, I see you managed to explicitly fault the mothering skills of the victim, insinuating her as neither loving nor attentive to her child. Her’s her obit if it helps your understanding of “what kind of mother”:


    She looks pretty capable and caring to me.

    No. You clearly do not get the point that as a driver you have a far greater responsibility. Yes, you should be in greater legal risk do the higher risks associated with your car use. I do agree with your assessment of “the wise person takes care to protect himself.” Part of that wise protection would be to seek fair legal recourse against drivers for the disproportionate amount of risk they bring to the interaction.

  10. I carry a flashlight if I have to walk at night. I have even pointed it in the faces of drivers who turn when I have the walk sign. Drivers now increasingly do not only not follow the laws that protect pedestrians, they don’t even know them. They see nothing wrong with right-turning in front of you when it is the peds turn to walk. Or even make you stop in the middle of the street while they make a left. Things have drastically changed. Seeing a ped isn’t enough, if they do not know they have to stop.

  11. The main problems I see now when walking: Aggression, phone use and ignorance of the laws. And, sorry, that goes for all persons operating machines with wheels.

  12. Yes, it does seem unfair. It also seem like you cannot read clearly. I did not fault her mothering skills at all. That is something you made up. I faulted her street crossing skills. Looking both ways, not just before you cross, but as you cross as well seems prudent to me. I certainly do. I agree drivers have greater responsibility, but not infinite responsibility. Pedestrian fatality rates are rising, but it is foolish to blame only the drivers.

  13. If pedestrians can walk anywhere they want, then why have crosswalks? This is a terrible example to prove the point you are trying to make. I have walked and bussed more than I’ve driven. The one survial technique that has kept me alive while walking is to meet eyes with the driver. If I don’t meet eyes, I don’t walk. When I drive, I meet walkers’s to let them know I see them and it’s there turn. Simple communication helps so much.

  14. You did.

    *And I might also ask, how does a loving and attentive mother, knowing she and her child are in a vulnerable position – mid block, no cross-walk, at night – not see an on-coming vehicle with headlights on, and attempt to get out of its path ?*

    If you realize it or not, this indicates you have a very shaky grasp on morality.

  15. Thank you. I do think that morality has everything to do with how bad an end of the stick pedestrians are getting right now.

  16. I think it’s fair to fault her mothering skills. She was not heeding the risks that were intrinsic to the situation.

    I’m generally entirely in favor of pedestrian amenities, but the absence of them in certain road segments does not give pedestrians some sort of moral high ground when they deny reality that they are small, slow and fragile compared to a big, fast and mighty car. At some point, pedestrians have to be held responsible for failing to abide by the basic rule most of us got taught before we were in kindergarten: Look both ways before crossing.

    If there’s no evidence that the driver was breaking any laws in the process, how seriously can they punish her? I agree that this is a terrible example for pedestrian advocacy. Just as some bicyclists behave recklessly, so do some pedestrians. Given the widely reported increase in pedestrian deaths in recent years, it’s hard to imagine this is the best example we could come up with.

    “Regardless of the specifics of the case…” No. The specifics of the case are critical here. If this was a flukey location for a person to cross, a motorist cannot be expected to anticipate it, as long as he/she is obeying all other traffic rules customary for the location.

  17. He has a rational grasp of morality. You can’t let emotionalism interfere with your understanding of the situation. If the driver was heeding traffic laws, a manslaughter charge is about as steep as one can expect. The woman failed to heed the advice she was undoubtedly taught when she was a toddler.

  18. But what if the driver wasn’t speeding? And the pedestrian walked so suddenly into the road that the driver had a half-second to react? Do we fault the driver for not having the reflexes of a cat?

  19. Correct. Of manslaughter–the most serious charge one can expect given she was not breaking any other laws and showed no signs of negligence.

  20. We fault the driver for fiddling around with putting her cell phone in her purse and not watching the road. How is it that people think a woman who was sentenced is not guilty? She is guilty. She pleaded guilty.

  21. That is not true. Other accounts say the scene was reconstructed. They believe that after she finished texting at the red light, she had her head beneath the dashboard, replacing her phone in her purse.

  22. If that’s true, then those are “the specifics of the case” that this article carelessly fails to mention. These details certainly mattered in the courtroom.

    I’m willing to stand corrected if the driver was behaving negligently at the moment of the accident. If she was, then I’d happily admit I was wrong and change my tune. This article instead seems to try to exculpate pedestrians from the failure to exercise even the basics of common sense.

  23. Thank you. I see this everyday when I walk. You do not have to be talking on your phone to be distracted by it. They are scrolling through it, etc. They often fiddle with the phone while before a crosswalk and slowly drift into the crosswalk. I see peds afraid to cross if they see the driver playing with their phone because we know from experience that they will slowly roll into the crosswalk while we are crossing. They also block the crosswalks while playing with it or go right through them.

  24. It’s so lovely that you are willing to admit that you’re wrong, but a huge part of the problem is that you, and gobs of others, including most journalists, immediately blame the pedestrian. Why? Why don’t you immediately question the actions of the driver who very well could have been putting her phone away, been looking too long at something else that caught her eye causing her to not see these people, or doing something other than texting on her phone, or grabbing a piece of gum, or changing the radio station. There are a million things she could have been doing that caused her to kill these people, yet people like you assume she did NOTHING wrong.

    If you choose to drive a multi-ton vehicle anywhere, then YOU are responsible for operating it safely so that you don’t kill or maim other people, or even yourself.

  25. Come on, Lauren. Be real. Do you honestly think this young mother had a death wish for her and her baby, so that she bolted into the street as a car came along? That is freaking absurd.

  26. You need to cross a road with no crosswalk at night. You see headlights approaching. Do you run out with your baby or wait a few minutes?

  27. Why do I immediately blame the pedestrian?

    I don’t. But I also don’t automatically ascribe virtue to the weak.

    In the past, while driving in subpar situations, I have often thought of how difficult it may be to go through life having killed someone in my car, even if I was obeying all the rules. At one point, while driving in Nashville, in the dark, in the rain, going across an overpass, I came across a bicyclist who had no lights, no reflectors, no headgear, driving along the edge of a street that had no shoulders, going the wrong way up that same hill. If it weren’t for my youthful reflexes, I would have killed him. Even though I was doing absolutely nothing wrong, I still would have faced a life of guilt for something and would have continuously asked “what could I have done to prevent it”, when it’s very possible the answer would have been “nothing”.

    Either this was a poorly chosen example to make the writer’s case, or the writer failed to include the details that would have made it a good example. All the considerations you mentioned could easily have been applied to the pedestrian in equal measure. Fortunately, the eye of the law, though infallible, does not let emotionalism that favors the weak and vulnerable prevail, since it’s very possible that the weak and vulnerable still hold some–or even all–culpability in the matter. Each scenario must be viewed on its own merits.

    That may not be the scenario in this instance, in which case I was wrong. But the article on its own does not make a very good case for itself, and I’m not the only one writing here who thinks this.

  28. no, this is nothing like it. I see this in NYC all the time, some people literally walk out in front of moving cars expecting the world to stop around them

  29. cause all drivers zone out on empty roads. i jaywalk all the time. but if i were to do it on a dark road, i wouldn’t be walking out with my child with headlights coming right at me

  30. A key point omitted in your article Ms. Schmidtt is Reardon agreed to a plea deal by pleading guilty to three charges out of 9 to ensure a lighter sentence. Both sides in the case were able to work out deal for the Atlanta teen to plead guilty. She pleaded guilty to three counts of homicide by vehicle and texting while driving charge in exchange for a lighter sentence of 36 months probation.

    “How does someone who is being attentive and driving at a safe speed — as her attorneys claim — completely fail to see three pedestrians in the road? Wouldn’t an attentive driver have been able to slow down enough to avoid at least hitting them at a lethal speed? Women carrying babies don’t move that fast.”

    The argument of why a negligent driver didn’t see three pedestrians works both ways — why didn’t the three pedestrians see the car? Isn’t it easier for three pedestrians to see an oncoming car which isn’t slowing down?

    Since it’s widely acknowledged many drivers are reckless or careless, why do pedestrians cross streets outside a marked crosswalk without looking for potential hazards?

  31. Very insightful point and accurate. Pedestrians and every vulnerable road user have a duty to show due care for their own safety when walking outside of crosswalks even if they have the right-of-way.

  32. Just because you’re driving within the applicable maximum speed limit doesn’t necessarily mean you’re not speeding.

    In Georgia the vehicle code states

    No person shall drive a vehicle at a speed greater than is reasonable and prudent under the conditions and having regard for the actual and potential hazards then existing. … [E]very person shall drive at a reasonable and prudent speed when … special hazards exist with respect to pedestrians or other traffic or by reason of weather or highway conditions.

    Even if the posted speed limit is 45mph and you’re going 30mph, if that speed is too fast to see and stop for a pedestrian crossing the street legally, you’re speeding.

  33. No. It is a bad idea to constantly say that it is easy for pedestrians to evade cars or other vehicles. It simply is not true. Especially since many machine operators fail to notice that they are not the only machine with wheels we have to watch out for.

  34. I was not speaking about legality – rather, morality. The two often overlap. When it comes to driving a car, it doesn’t.

  35. And if there was no pedestrian crossing and no reasonable justification for one because it’s a rural area where pedestrians are rare, then you’re running out of rope with which to lynch this poor teenager.

    If the teenager in question was finishing a text and did not have her eyes on the road, she is negligent and deserves a punishment equivalent to that negligence. If she was following all the rules, at some point we have to ascribe at least a tiny bit of responsibility to the pedestrians (who were taking it on themselves to cross the street in the dark in an area where it seems pedestrians are rare), as much as a heavily slanted website like this would like to exculpate them completely.

    I support the vast majority of the advocacy here. But not every case is a slam-dunk, and, by omitting key details, this article became less persuasive, and so does the advocacy.

  36. Road safety for vulnerable users has always been and always will be a shared responsibility. I am ultimately responsible for my own safety when crossing the street whether a car sees me or not.

    Motor vehicle operators have the duty to operate their vehicles in a safe manner, but when they don’t due to negligence it’s the vulnerable road user who becomes the victim. On that basis I would never take it for granted a motor vehicle operator sees me or will grant me my right-of-way.

    While Reardon pled guilty and found negligent, two adults with one holding an infant lost their lives by not being vigilant crossing outside of a crosswalk and were probably distracted themselves. If one or both of the adults were aware the approaching car didn’t slow down this tragedy would have been averted.

    I once exited a BART station and while looking left first while crossing the street a car to my right dangerously reversed at an unsafe speed while I was already crossing the street. It was my vigilance for being aware of my surroundings that saved my life. I heard the approaching car from my right and leaped forward to narrowly escape the reversing car.

    In many cases it is easier for pedestrians to evade negligent motor vehicle operators especially when drivers don’t see you or are distracted. Pedestrian safety has always been and always will be a shared responsibility. It is never safe to assume the driver sees you.

  37. I’m not interested in “lynching” anyone. I agree that this particular situation looks like the driver made a mistake – unfortunately, a fatal one.

    What I want is to prevent mistakes from becoming tragedies like this one through better infrastructure where appropriate, and by getting those who demonstrate that they are unable or unwilling to take their responsibilities as the operator of a motor vehicle seriously, off the road.

  38. Meeting eyes is not foolproof. The sausage truck driver who rolled through a stop sign while I was riding highly visibly and legally seemed to be looking right at my eyes, as I was looking at his. For many motorists, pedestrians, cyclists and motorcyclists wear a Cloak of Invisibility. More pedestrians are probably hit in crosswalks than out of them, where they exist. Apparently there was no crosswalk near these people. Why aren’t motorists liable for operating a potentially deadly machine on public roads when they kill or injure others? Why aren’t car manufacturers liable for selling a vehicle that kills when used as designed? The car is king on the Royal Roads, and we must get out of the way and bend our knee as they pass. The penalty for obstructing the king on his roads was immediate death, and that hasn’t changed much.

  39. I’ve had drivers speed up to pass another driver who’s stopped to let me walk through the crosswalk, when I was clearly visible to them as well. More frequently they’re passing an SUV or taller vehicle so can’t see the pedestrian, but you’d think they would have a clue because of the stopped car and the zebra striping. There’s also many drivers who “never even saw” the pedestrians they hit in the crosswalk.

  40. What about the design of the Jeep Wrangler, (or other similar SUV’s) far more likely to kill pedestrians, cyclists and people in smaller cars because of the height of their grill and their chassis which rides right over lower chassis? (They’re even more likely to kill themselves and their passengers because of rollovers due to higher center of gravity.) -Read High and Mighty to see that manufacturers have known about these inherent risks for 30 years.

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  43. I try desperately to employ this tactic, but more often than not the driver never looks at me. They speed up and into the crosswalk and stop and look only in the direction they need to check before they turn. They are hyper focused only to look for other cars. Additionally, more and more windows are tinted and I can’t see inside the car. And during the day there are issues with sunlight not allowing me to see the driver.

  44. Pedestrians and drivers are really seeing the same situation from completely different points of view. Pedestrians often don’t realize how difficult it is for them to be seen. They walk as if drivers can and will see them, but right or wrong, that is just not the case. At dusk, when they are backlit, at night, when it’s raining, or when there is glare from wet pavement are all exceedingly dangerous times to be out walking. People often have no idea that they are, for all practical purposes, invisible.

    For people driving, if you are not scanning for pedestrians and looking for people crossing the street, especially in built up areas like where this accident took place, you are being negligent. That doesn’t mean you will see them of course. That could be what happened here.

    I think the town here is also negligent for not providing a safe way for people to move around the neighborhood. No pedestrian crossings and too high of a speed limit in an area with shops, homes, and theaters is a bad combination. I see they partially fixed it after the tragedy, and not before.

  45. The article states that there are no crosswalks on this street. Unfortunately, evasion maneuvers only work if you are not disabled and you have quick reaction times. With nearly 1 in 5 people in the U.S. with a disability https://www.census.gov/newsroom/releases/archives/miscellaneous/cb12-134.html, that’s a lot of people who have the right to walk but for whom it is not easy to evade negligent motor vehicle drivers. Our goal should be to make the built environment more forgiving of human error.

  46. Driving at dusk. What was the color of the car compared to the color of surroundings and asphalt? Did the driver have her lights on or was she completely dependent on the automobile to make that decision for her? In what direction was the sun setting? Just as pedestrians can be invisible in poor light conditions, so can vehicles.

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