Child's Death Highlights Pedestrian Traffic Woes Raquel Nelson was convicted of vehicular homicide after her 4-year-old son was killed by a van. They were jaywalking across a busy highway to avoid a much longer walk to their home in the Atlanta suburbs. The story stirs debate about safety for walkers in areas designed for car commuters.

Child's Death Highlights Pedestrian Traffic Woes

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GUY RAZ, host: Here's another story we've been following this week. A judge in Georgia sentenced 30-year-old Raquel Nelson to a year of probation, and 40 hours of community service, after she was convicted of vehicular homicide. Nelson's 4-year-old son was killed in a hit-and-run back in April of 2010. Nelson was held partially responsible because she and her children were jaywalking.

Now, the story has lit up the blogosphere, particularly blogs that promote smart urban growth and public transportation. We'll here why in a moment. But first, some background.

Nelson is a single mother. She's also a part-time student, and she can't afford a car. So she uses the bus to get from her apartment in suburban Atlanta to downtown and other places. On April 10, 2010, she was out with her three kids celebrating a birthday. And as they were making their way to the stop to take the bus home, they just missed it. The next bus arrived an hour later.

And so by the time they got home, it was way past the kids' bedtime. And what happened next? Here's Michelle Wirth, a reporter with WABE in Atlanta.

MICHELLE WIRTH: They got off the bus, which is directly across the street from her apartment complex, and her and her three children - it was getting dark. She wanted to get them home as quickly as possible because they weren't used to being out after dark.

So she did what she said a lot of neighbors in her community do, which was she crossed from where the bus stop was located to a median in the center of the four-lane state roadway. And she says that's when her son ran into the road, and she ran after him. And she, her son and her youngest daughter were then struck by the hit-and-run driver. And her son died of injuries from the accident.

RAZ: The driver had been drinking. He was partially blind and had a criminal record. When police finally caught him, he ended up spending just six months in jail. But prosecutors in Cobb County, Georgia, also charged Raquel Nelson with endangering her children. Now, Nelson's apartment complex is directly across the street from the bus stop, a bus stop that primarily serves that complex. But the nearest crosswalk is a third of a mile away. And so that night, tired after missing the bus and rushing to get three kids home to bed, Nelson crossed in the middle of the road.

David Goldberg is with the pro-public transport group called Transportation for America, and he's been blogging about this case and what he regards as the injustice of it all.

DAVID GOLDBERG: The place where this incident occurred, in suburban Cobb County, is like many, many older suburbs around the country - built primarily for the car. But increasingly, lower-income folks, people who don't have access to a car, have moved into these areas.

So now they're using the bus, they're walking, but they're in places that the local and the state DOTs have built that are entirely hostile to people on foot. So this is emblematic of the situation that people like Raquel Nelson find themselves in every single day.

RAZ: And put in this position - if you look at the latest census information, it's clear that suburban America is now poorer than urban parts of America. This is the reverse of traditional patterns, which suggest that there are people - many people living in suburbs who cannot afford - as you say, cannot afford cars, have to use public transit. It's not always available.

GOLDBERG: And by the way, this is going to become a bigger and bigger issue in these areas because these are also the areas that are aging more quickly. And we're seeing a rapidly growing older American population. A lot of these folks, for economic reasons, for health reasons and for other reasons, are going to be using their cars less and looking for other transportation options.

And they're also going to be the ones that need a little bit more time to get across the road - and need a little bit more protection because their reflexes aren't going to allow them to dodge out of the way of a car, like younger people can.

RAZ: Do you believe that Raquel Nelson could sue Cobb County for not putting some kind of crosswalk by this bus stop?

GOLDBERG: Well, I'm not going to make a legal judgment about that. But one irony of the situation is, when I asked county officials if they were planning to address the safety issue here - and by the way, the state Department of Transportation, it's really their route, and they should be taking care of this - neither of them will answer the question of whether they're going to fix this situation because, they say, we can't talk about it because of the possibility of pending litigation - which means if they were to go out and fix the problem, it would be a tacit acknowledgment that the problem existed.

So they are going to wait. I don't know if they're going to wait for the statute of limitations to run out, or what they're going to do. But they're going to actually leave the dangerous conditions in place, potentially, because they're worried about a suit, and they don't want to give any ammo to a lawsuit.

RAZ: That's David Goldberg with Transportation for America. The judge in the case has given Raquel Nelson the option of a new trial. A petition is now circulating online, calling on Georgia's governor to grant her a pardon.

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