Stop Putting Pedestrians to Blame: The Case of Raquel Nelson

Update 07/26/2011: In a hearing room at Cobb County State Court today, Raquel Nelson was sentenced by a jury to 40 hours of community service and 12 months' probation in the vehicular manslaughter case against her. As outlined in the post below, Nelson is the mother of 4-year-old A.J. Nelson, who was killed by a hit-and-run driver who later admitted to driving under the influence. Nelson and her three children were hit while attempting to cross the road from a bus stop directly across from their apartment complex. The four-lane road lacks any pedestrian-scaled elements whatsoever, with no crosswalks or signals demarcated. After handing down the sentence, Judge Katherine Tanksley offered a new trial for Nelson, as the judge was seemingly aware of the tragic consequences surrounding the case that was brought on by poor design and an overly aggressive prosecution. 

Imagine a tired thirty-year-old mother attempting to cross a busy four-lane highway with three young children in tow. The nearest traffic signal is over half a mile away. Her apartment is right across the street. She follows her fellow pedestrians and decides to cross the street by taking the shortest path. Now imagine a driver impaired by alcohol and painkillers. He runs into the mother’s four-year-old son with his car, killing him. He has been convicted for two hit-and-runs before.

Who is at fault? Who is to blame?

These questions and more are raised in an in-depth article by David Goldberg for Transportation for America, about the case of Raquel Nelson. Last week, Raquel Nelson was convicted of second-degree vehicular homicide for crossing a road elsewhere than at a crosswalk and reckless conduct, a mistake that cost the life of her son. She faces up to 3 years in jail. Jerry L. Guy—the man who ran into her son, admitted to alcohol and painkiller consumption at the time of the accident, and pleaded guilty to hit-and-run (his third one)—was released after serving a 6-month sentence and will serve the remainder of a five-year sentence on probation. Nelson may end up serving more time than the driver.

Seen from any angle, this is a story of great tragedy. Though the accident last year, many questions remain: Why was the mother convicted for what seems like a minor error on her part? Why was she blamed for her child’s death? Lying even deeper than the questions of blame are those about the factors surrounding the accident. At risk of incurring a battle of who’s-innocent-who’s-guilty or questioning the legitimacy of the legal system, let us look into what caused the tragic incident in the first place and see what legislators can do to prevent it from happening again.

At the root of this accident is a huge oversight by the city planners, designers, engineers, and regulators of Atlanta, Georgia. There was no convenient crossway near the bus stop at which Nelson stepped off. The speedway was five-lanes wide and zipped with cars running 50mph or more, despite the area being surrounded by houses and apartments. There were no sidewalks or safety zones for those using public transportation. Quite simply, the area was built to be hostile to pedestrians.

Fatalities maps show such streets peppered with pedestrian deaths, indicating that there is something more than “reckless conduct” at stake here. Rather, as Goldberg points out, accidents like those of Nelson and Guy are “waiting to happen, thanks to poor planning and dangerous designs.” It is a frustrating situation that demands national attention and immediate reform.

It is not just Atlanta that we have to worry about, however. Places nationwide are hampered by unreliable public transport systems, poor city planning, and bad highway design that put pedestrians at risk. Designing context-sensitive and place-specific streets that take into account the full community is something CNU actively engages in and champions. Working with the Institute of Transportation Engineers, CNU has produced Designing Walkable Urban Thoroughfares: A Context Sensitive Approach to begin implementing such reforms.

To participate in actively preventing repeat recurrences of cases like Nelson's, you can read, download and petition your local community to get involved with and utilize the tools found within Designing Walkable Urban Thoroughfares. And to help Nelson's cause, please consider signing the petition to release her from prison at 



Donating to Raquel Nelson's legal fund

Send contributions to Chase Bank, 1050 E Piedmont Rd, Suite Y, Marietta, Georgia 30062. You can make the check out to Raquel Nelson Legal Defense Fund.  Or, does it make sense to pool donations together into one check from CNU? It may be a little late for that as some NUers may have already donated. But at least we can identify ourselves as "Member, Congress for the New Urbanism" on our checks and letters.


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