On July 26, Raquel Nelson was sentenced by a judge in Cobb County, Georgia to 1 year of probation and 40 hours of community service. The events leading up to this sentencing sparked intense debate and outrage amongst many, as the July 26 sentencing occurred after Raquel Nelson had been convicted by a jury of three charges relating to the tragic death of her four-year old son, A.J. Nelson, in April 2010.
As has been widely reported, Raquel Nelson had just gotten off the bus and was attempting to cross the street near the intersection of Austell Road and Austell Circle. She was with her three children and several other bus passengers that were similarly crossing the street at that location. The group had crossed two lanes of traffic and was waiting on the median when A.J. left her side to follow several others in the group that were crossing all the way across the street. Ms. Nelson, anxious for her son’s safety, followed A.J. into the second half of the street when she, A.J., and her 2 year old daughter were all struck by Jerry Guy, a driver with past hit-and-run convictions who fled the scene and later admitted to having “a few” drinks prior in the day.
The charges against Ms. Nelson, homicide by vehicle in the second degree, crossing the roadway outside of a crosswalk, and reckless conduct, were brought about by Cobb County Solicitor General Barry Morgan. As some news articles have reported, this was not the first time Cobb County had charged a pedestrian with vehicular manslaughter (Altamesa Walker was charged in a similar case in Cobb County two years prior).
However, in the several hundred news articles and extensive media coverage surrounding this story, several myths about crossing the street have pervaded. We explain these myths below and suggest the implications for improving future pedestrian planning and safety in light of this case.
Myth #1: “Ms. Nelson and her family were jaywalking.”
Fact: Crossing where Ms. Nelson and her family crossed the street is legal, and is not considered jaywalking, under the Georgia Motor Vehicle Code. Jaywalking is not a legal term but is a commonly used (not to mention “loaded”) term to refer to a crossing that is illegal. Many crossings are illegal. For example, according to the Georgia Motor Vehicle Code (OCGA §40-6-91), pedestrians may not legally cross the street at locations between adjacent, signalized intersections except at a marked crosswalk. However, the location where Ms. Nelson and her family crossed was not between adjacent, signalized intersections. As with many suburban arterial roadways, the signalized intersections on Austell Road are spaced far apart. Unsignalized intersections, with side-street stop control, are present at many locations between the signalized intersections. At these locations, legal, unmarked crosswalks are present (as noted above). And in between these intersections, pedestrians can legally cross the street anywhere they deem appropriate.
When crossing the street away from an intersection, the right-of-way “burden” shifts to the pedestrian, who must yield to vehicles in the roadway. However, under Georgia law, once the pedestrian enters the roadway under “safe conditions”, the burden shifts back to the driver, who then must give the pedestrian the right-of-way even if they are not crossing at an intersection. A speeding driver, under the influence of alcohol, changes the pedestrian’s calculus on what may have otherwise been a “safe” time to enter the roadway. In this case, the burden to give the right-of-way to the pedestrian had shifted to the driver when Ms. Nelson’s son began his crossing.
Upon review of the facts, the jaywalking label should never have been assigned in this case. It is an example of a driver-first culture, not uncommon in a suburban context. This same cultural bias pervaded the local newspapers (with “jaywalking” used in many headlines for this story). What’s worse, it seemed to influence the jurors in this case, if not the prosecutors as well.
Myth #2: “The nearest crosswalks were three-tenths of a mile in either direction.”
Fact: The nearest crosswalk was located at the intersection of Austell Road and Austell Circle, approximately 100 feet from the location where A.J. Nelson was hit. The Georgia Motor Vehicle Code (OCGA §40-6-91), like many others across the US, defines both marked and unmarked crosswalks as locations where drivers must give the right-of-way to a pedestrian crossing the street. While the nearest marked crosswalks were three-tenths of a mile in either direction, an unmarked crosswalk was located at the bus stop were Ms. Nelson and her family got off the bus – approximately 100 feet from their crossing location (based on the aerial photograph and diagram created by Transportation 4 America shown below). In fact, unmarked crosswalks are present at every intersection. They represent “desire lines” for pedestrians seeking the shortest path on foot.
The unmarked crosswalks at Austell Circle differ from the marked crosswalks over three-tenths of a mile away, which are at signalized intersections. However any crosswalk – marked or unmarked – is treated as an entirely legal crossing under Georgia law.
This is a common myth and one that likely has implications for both pedestrian and driver behavior when they interact in unmarked crosswalks. Since 2005, the UC Berkeley Traffic Safety Center (now known as SafeTREC), in a study funded by the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans), has focused on developing a better understanding of driver and pedestrian behavior in both marked and unmarked crosswalks in an effort to recommend more informed crosswalk policies.
Mitman and Ragland (2007) presented the results of intercept surveys and focus groups which assessed driver and pedestrian knowledge of right-of-way laws. Previous studies have shown that both drivers and pedestrians have a limited knowledge of pedestrian right-of-way laws. Mitman and Ragland expanded on these studies by specifically considering knowledge of right-of-way laws related to marked and unmarked crosswalks. Results confirmed that a substantial level of confusion exists with respect to pedestrian right-of-way laws. This confusion was exacerbated by intersections with unmarked crosswalks.
Had Ms. Nelson known an unmarked crosswalk was located at the bus stop where she got off, and had drivers in the corridor also been aware of the presence of this crosswalk (drivers under the influence of alcohol notwithstanding), the circumstances of this crossing may have been different and residents in Ms. Nelson’s apartment complex might feel more empowered to access their local bus stop along a convenient path of travel.
Beyond the Myths: Improving Pedestrian Safety in the Suburban Context
Almost 40 years of pedestrian safety research have focused on marked and unmarked crosswalks, making this topic one of the most debated in the pedestrian safety field. The Raquel Nelson case highlights the need for Cobb County and other jurisdictions with similar pedestrian and transit environments to take proactive steps to improve pedestrian safety. The County has completed a Bicycle and Pedestrian Improvement Plan (2010) and has implemented a Complete Streets Policy, both of which lay important groundwork for the needed crosswalk enhancements. In fact, this section of Austell Road was identified in the County’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Improvement Plan as having a high pedestrian demand and consequently a high priority for pedestrian safety improvements.
A recent research effort, jointly sponsored by the Transit Cooperative Research Program (TCRP) and the National Cooperative Highway Research Program (NCHRP) and conducted by the Texas Transportation Institute (TTI), focused on determining the effectiveness of pedestrian safety engineering countermeasures. As a result of this study, specific engineering guidelines for selecting effective pedestrian crossing treatments for uncontrolled intersections and midblock locations are now available based on key input variables such as: pedestrian volume, street crossing width, and traffic volume. The study also suggested modifications to the pedestrian traffic signal warrant in the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices for Streets and Highways (MUTCD), many of which have been adopted in the 2009 edition.
These new insights underscore the need for a policy re-prioritization to embrace a broader range of countermeasure treatments and better address the role of human factors in pedestrian collisions. The following guidelines are illustrative components of a more balanced, “3-E” (engineering, enforcement, and education) strategy to mitigate crash risk within crosswalks. The three types of countermeasures are envisioned to efficiently work together to encourage safe and lawful behavior by both pedestrians and drivers.
Recognizing the limited funds available for engineering countermeasures and the significant number of potential implementation sites, strategic planning is needed to maximize the benefits of countermeasure deployment. System owners should obtain a full inventory of “at risk” crosswalks using the Seattle model for strategic crosswalk safety planning. The City of Seattle’s crosswalk inventory and resulting crosswalk improvement work plan was initiated in recognition of the city’s “fundamental obligation to get pedestrians safely across the street.”
By developing a crosswalk inventory, system owners would then be able to prioritize locations for engineering countermeasure installation (such as a “HAWK” signal shown in the image below).
Engineering countermeasures should be supplemented with education and enforcement at each of the treatment sites. Additionally, broader education and enforcement initiatives can be designed to address crosswalk safety at all locations, not just those prioritized for engineering countermeasure installation. This can be done through revisions to state Driver’s Handbooks, pedestrian safety campaigns and other targeted outreach strategies to both drivers and pedestrians.
As evidenced by the facts of the Raquel Nelson case, better education could help avoid misguided or inappropriate jaywalking charges being brought about by local prosecutors.
As with educational measures, enforcement measures should target both pedestrians and drivers. Recommended innovative enforcement strategies that seek to enhance pedestrian and driver knowledge of and compliance with right-of-way laws include enforcement “stings,” educational warnings in lieu of or in addition to fines, and community enforcement programs.
Sustained enforcement efforts can also serve as valuable educational campaigns by incorporating warnings, informational pamphlets, media coverage, and community involvement activities. In this way, road users may learn the right-of-way laws through enforcement of these laws.
Unmarked crosswalks at uncontrolled intersections are numerous, yet few realize they exist as legal ways to cross the street. In addition, widespread misinformation about jaywalking furthers the myth that anyone crossing the street outside of an intersection is somehow guilty of breaking the law. Since it is sure to be well-publicized, perhaps the retrial of Ms. Nelson’s case, which she indicated she would accept last week, can serve as an opportunity to illuminate and eliminate these myths about crossing the street.
About the authors:
Meghan Mitman, AICP and Matt Haynes, PE, AICP respectively manage the San Francisco and San Jose offices of Fehr & Peers. Meghan is originally from Georgia and crossed the street many times while growing up there. Matt’s older son is 4 years old and they enjoy going on frequent walks together, sometimes even crossing the street at an unmarked crosswalk.
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