The injustices run deep in the Raquel Nelson hit-and-run case

Meghan Murphy-Gill| comments | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare
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Whether or not you’re a follower of transportation news and policy, chances are you’ve heard the story of Raquel Nelson, the Georgia woman who was convicted of vehicular manslaughter after her 4-year-old son was struck and killed in a hit and run. No, Nelson wasn’t the hit-and-run driver; she was crossing the street at a bus stop with her three children. In fact, Nelson has never even owned a car, but had been using public transportation. The reason she was found at fault was that she wasn’t using a crosswalk. Rather than walk nearly a half a mile to the closest one, she crossed with other pedestrians in at the bus stop. (Perhaps instead of spending public funds to prosecute this mother, Cobb County could be putting in a crosswalk at the bus stop for residents who live in Nelson's same apartment complex, directly across from the stop.)

Nelson’s conviction meant she could face the possibility of three years jail time. Instead, the judge, likely recognizing the absurdity of the situation, offered her 12 months probation plus community service or a new trial, which Nelson is considering. The actual driver involved in the accident did six months in jail and by the time Nelson was convicted, had served his time. Likewise, he had already been convicted of two hit-and-runs before. And apparently still has his driver's license.

The injustice of the situation is immediately clear. Why should Nelson have to face another steep penalty for her decision to not walk down the road and use the crosswalk? Hasn’t the fact that she lost her son been enough?

I’m no endorser of jaywalking. Riding my bike to work nearly every day, I have to use my outdoor voice every evening on my way home and shout at pedestrians crossing in the middle of the street when there’s a light and a cross walk on every block. They stand in bike lanes and cross against lights with alarming regularity. The put not only their safety but mine at risk every time they step off the curb and into the road when it’s not their turn. It’s frustrating on so many levels. Sometimes I think the only way I could be more frustrated was if I were a civil engineer who worked on pedestrian/vehicle traffic patterns and felt slapped in the face by every pedestrian in the Chicago Loop who with their traffic violations rejected my hard work trying to keep them safe.

But there are major differences between Nelson and the jaywalkers in the Chicago loop, and Nelson’s situation brings up more than just questions of justice around who should be punished for the tragedy. Ironically, poorer areas, where owning a car is more difficult, are much more tailored for a car culture than areas where residents can readily afford cars. Stephen Lee Davis, Deputy Communications Director of Transportation for America pointed out that the among the jury of six who convicted Nelson this month, none had ever taken a local bus.

The jaywalking pedestrians in the Loop who make my commute home maddening are largely white business people who have access to multiple fairly reliable modes of public transportation. The few blocks that cause me the most problems on my way home are on or are extremely close to two commuter rail lines, several bus routes, and the city train/subway system. Most of these people will go home to houses in the city and the suburbs, where they have at least one, probably two, and maybe even three cars to shuttle around their families. Traveling south of downtown a few miles, however, you’d discover a problem similar to the area where Nelson lives. Bus and train stops are farther and farther apart, as are safe places to cross the street.

Most of us take for granted how we get around. I’m having bike trouble this week and have had to take public transportation to work. I’ve been whiny about it, despite having at least two reliable routes that get me here in under an hour,. And if the city bus failed me, I could turn to my car. Granted, I live in an area with a population density that creates the critical mass necessary for public transit to run more efficiently and reliably, but this does not get our lawmakers off the hook for working to ensure access to good public transit for everyone. (It also does not get the Chicago Transit Authority off the hook for its slew of management problems.)

I could wax on about the importance of reliable public transit for a healthy and clean environment, but transportation, it turns out, is also a matter of justice for those who don’t even have the option to choose to fight the car culture because they’re already priced out of it.

[You can sign a petition addressed to the Governor of Georgia demanind a full pardon for Nelson here.]