Atlanta ruling reveals the deepest challenges

Since sharing this post, Prosecuting the victim, absolving the perpetrators, by Transportation for America with friends and colleagues, the responses I’ve received include words like: "heart breaking," "disgusting," "horrid," "shocking," "outrageous."

As advocates we are horrified by this ruling that charges Raquel Nelson with vehicular homicide. Nelson was crossing a busy road on foot with three children when her 4-year-old son was struck by a car and killed.

Our hearts go out to Raquel Nelson and her family.

This story illustrates exactly how much work we have in front of us. We know that the behavior of motorists is strongly influenced by the built environment and so that’s our target. But working with planners and engineers we tend to get very focused on projects; as designers, dreamers, and doers, we immediately want to fix the built environment with bike lanes and pedestrian islands and road diets. We see kids trying to walk to school, we see a bike commuter terrified on a busy roadway and we step up and ask the question, “How can we fix it?”

More difficult than winning transportation improvements is transforming the mentality that created this all in the first place. The verdict of the Atlanta jury stems from the attitude that pedestrians are simply obstacles on the roadway.

As a society we are in more of a hurry than ever before, and therefore, as drivers we swerve before we brake. For those of us who were born and raised in this hurried culture, our time seems somehow more precious than life. We may not say this, but it’s revealed in practice. It’s inherent in our values system, and these values shape the decisions we make behind the wheel, decisions of people who sit on our juries and the decisions of those who design our roadways and plan our communities.

Mentality can’t be legislated and it can’t be enforced. It’s deep rooted within all of us. Depressing, huh? So what can we do? What can YOU do?

As an advocate, I think the simplest thing you can do is go for a walk and bring a friend. Seriously! None of the jurors on that Atlanta jury had ever taken the bus before! Let’s try to give the general public a little more perspective.

The general public is you and everyone you know. Most of us have a friend or relative who is always multitasking in the car, always tense behind the wheel. Ever find yourself at a family dinner with your second cousin nagging about those darned cyclists on the road? Choose to have that conversation, or any conversation, with them while going for a stroll. Walk to the store. Walk to the post office. Find an excuse to get them outside, on the “other side of the glass.”

Our values are shaped by our experiences under this human condition. When you give someone a new experience, it lends perspective to their decision making. These are baby steps to healing the mentality of our broken system. I wish that I could offer up some silver bullet, but this is a start. Let's start today.

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