A recent spate of deaths should prompt a new commitment to road safety. Instead, the opposite is happening.

The sad state of pedestrian infrastructure in the United States doesn’t usually make the headlines. An exception came last year, when an Atlanta-area woman named Raquel Nelson was convicted of vehicular homicide in the death of her four-year-old son, A.J., because she had been crossing the street illegally with him when he was hit and killed by a car. She could have been sentenced to three years in prison.

The man behind the wheel was Jerry Guy, who pleaded guilty to hit-and-run in the case. He admitted to drinking earlier in the day and said he had been prescribed pain medication as well. He’s blind in one eye. In 1997, Guy had been convicted of two other hit-and-runs that occurred on the same day, one of them on the very same road where A.J. died. But prosecutors still decided to go after Nelson a month after her son died, and she could have ended up doing more time than the driver. Hers is not the only such case.

After a huge public outcry and an appearance on the Today show, the nation’s feel-good forum for 15 minutes of sympathetic fame, Nelson was sentenced to a year’s probation and 40 hours of community service, and offered the chance at a new trial, which she has said she plans to take.

The case brought unusual national attention to the way so many American streets and high-speed suburban arterials are designed to make pedestrian-car conflicts nearly inevitable. In the Nelson case, a bus stop was positioned directly across the street from an apartment complex, but there was no light or crosswalk to protect people who might be crossing there.

Nelson and her kids did what everyone else getting off the bus did: they crossed there anyway. In order to get to the other side of the street legally, or with any hope of safety, in a sanctioned crosswalk, they would have had to walk a third of a mile in each direction. Transit officials and road engineers know quite well that in practice, people simply will not do this. Yet all over the country, they persist in locating bus stops this way.

In a perfect world, the Nelson case could have led to much more than a better judicial outcome for the grieving mother. It might have resulted in more attention to pedestrian facilities, and more funding to construct them. Lives could have been saved as a result.

So far in the Atlanta area - including Cobb County, where A.J. died - it’s not going that way. According to the Georgia Department of Transportation, things actually might be getting worse for pedestrians, with fatalities steadily on the uptick, especially on roads in the Atlanta area. From the Atlanta Journal-Constitution:

Statistics released last week by the Georgia Department of Transportation show the number of pedestrians struck and killed by motor vehicles in 2012 is on track to exceed last year's total of 124 fatalities. As of mid-August, 82 pedestrians had been killed on area roads, compared with 63 at the same time last year.

"The numbers are up," said Meg Pirkle, GDOT's director of operations. "It's certainly a concern for us. We have to provide safe routes for all users, pedestrian or not."

The article goes on to detail how slow the progress is, and how inadequate the funds are to the task at hand:

It's unclear whether improvements will come quickly. GDOT officials said a statewide pedestrian safety action plan will be drawn up this year. There is some money on hand for audible warning signals at intersections or high-intensity activated crosswalk or HAWK signals, which are button-activated traffic signals designed to help pedestrians cross busy streets.

In Cobb County, where residents approved a penny sales tax last year, $15.5 million will go toward sidewalks. In June, the county installed a HAWK signal on Six Flags Drive that officials say appears to be working well.

Gwinnett County has about $34 million to use for pedestrian improvements because of the five-year penny sales tax voters approved in 2009. Some sidewalks have been added on Bush, Pine and Old Suwanee roads. However, Gwinnett Transportation Director Kim Conroy said there are still about $100 million worth of pending sidewalk requests.

A one percent sales tax that would have helped fund more pedestrian improvements was “resoundingly voted down.”

As overall traffic deaths in Georgia are going down, the percentage of fatalities in which pedestrians are the victims is going up. The rate of pedestrian fatalities in Georgia is now 25 percent higher than the national average.

It’s not just Georgia pedestrians with a problem, though. The transportation bill that the Congress finally passed earlier this year was gutted of critical bicycle and pedestrian funding, as reported by Streetsblog Capitol Hill:

The GOP managed to paint these life-saving, community-enhancing programs as a frivolous waste of money spent planting flowers, and they hacked off a big chunk of money that used to be set aside for them. The end result is a “Transportation Alternatives” program which, according to America Bikes, cuts bike/ped funding by 60 to 70 percent. Not only is the overall pot smaller, but these funds can now be used on certain types of road projects. Worse, although half the funds will go straight to local areas to distribute, the half that goes to the states doesn’t need to be used for active transportation – they can “transfer” it to a whole host of other uses if they want. “Complete streets” language in the Senate bill that created a federal requirement for accommodation of non-motorized road users was stripped as well.

And so it goes. Roads keep on getting wider and faster. Accommodations for pedestrians and wheelchair users and bicyclists remain marginalized. Because in much of the country, if you’re not a driver, you’re not really part of the official picture, as one of the people quoted in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution article makes clear:

"I've been in third-world countries where I could move around better than I can in Atlanta," local actor Daryl Mitchell told a City Council panel this summer. Mitchell has been wheelchair-bound since a motorcycle accident a decade ago.

Before that wreck, Mitchell was a member of the group that counts in America, the people who can drive. Now, he’s on the other side. It could happen to any of us in an instant – or over time, as we get too old to drive safely. Or, god forbid, too poor to own and maintain and fuel a car. But we don’t want to think about that, do we?

Who cares how many pedestrians die on the high-speed arterials of Georgia? Not too many people this week, apparently. We’ll have to wait until the next Raquel Nelson case, when we can get all collectively weepy. And then do nothing. Again.

(In a sad postscript, Raquel Nelson was arrested last week on speeding and other charges.)

Photo credit: Transportation for America/Flickr

H/T @PPS_Placemaking for the link to the article about Georgia pedestrian deaths.

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