Sophia’s Law moves forward after Florida House State Affairs Committee approval

Both bills would change the flashing lights at some crosswalks from yellow to red

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – The family of a 12-year-old Satellite Beach girl who was killed as she used a lighted crosswalk, went to Tallahassee on Thursday to push for change.

Sophia Nelson was crossing at State Road A1A and Ellwood Avenue on Dec. 22 when she was struck by a vehicle, according to a Satellite Beach police report.

[RELATED: 12-year-old girl struck, killed on A1A crosswalk in Satellite Beach | Parents of Satellite Beach child killed in crosswalk push for change]

On Thursday, Sophia’s parents appeared before the Florida House State Affairs Committee to urge legislators to support legislation filed by Rep. Randy Fine, R-Palm Bay and Sen. Keith Perry, R-Gainesville.

Fine has dubbed House Bill 1371 as the Sophia Nelson Pedestrian Safety Act.

Sophia's father said the crash happened very quickly. He said they were walking home from the beach and Sophia pressed the button to activate the yellow flashing lights at the crosswalk.

He said she waited until it was safe to cross.

"After some cars passed, she looked and the next car was pretty far away," Mark Nelson said.

But her father said the car didn't stop and crashed into Sophia. Mark Nelson said he was with her moments after the impact.

"After she got hit, I had a brief chance to hold her in my arms and say goodbye to her before she lost consciousness," he said.

Mark Nelson said his daughter suffered a catastrophic brain injury. She was placed on life support until Christmas Day when she was taken off. Her family donated her organs.

"In the end, the miracle wasn't for Sophia to come back and make our family whole," Mark Nelson said through tears as he testified in front of the house committee. "The miracle was for four other families that Sophia was able to save."

The family shared their tragedy with lawmakers hoping it would push the state to make crosswalks safer.

“We are creating a false sense of security for pedestrians by making them believe they push that button they will be safe. And they are not,” Fine said.

The committee unanimously passed the bill on Thursday. It now goes to the House floor for a vote. A date has not been set.

Sophia's mother, Jill Nelson, is hoping their daughter's death will save more lives.

“We would like to not have any other family go through the tragedy that our family has gone through,” Jill Nelson said.

Here are the changes and issues the bills address.

  • Highways, streets, roads with no more than two lanes with speed limit less than 35 mph can still use the yellow flashing beacons. It requires red beacons for highways, streets, roads with more than two lanes with a speed limit more than 35 mph.
  • The state would ask the federal government to approve the change to red lights. If approved, the changes must be done in 12 months. If the federal government does not approve the request, the agency with jurisdiction over the road must retrofit existing mid-block crosswalks with red flashing lights or remove the crosswalk by Oct. 1, 2024.
  • As of October 2019, DOT reports 191 midblock crosswalks with yellow flashing beacons on the state highway system. Of those, there are 113 midblock crosswalks on roads with more than two lanes and speed limits of 35 mph or greater. There are 78 midblock crosswalks on roads with two lanes or less and speed limit under 35 mph.
  • State officials estimate it would cost $7.5 million to retrofit the 113 midblock crossings with legally acceptable equipment or to remove the crosswalk completely. The annual cost to maintain the additional required traffic signals and pedestrian hybrid beacons is $74,000.
  • State officials determined those costs by assuming 20% of the current yellow flashing beacon lights would be retrofitted with new equipment and 80% of the midblock crossings would be removed.
  • The cost to add a traffic signal or pedestrian hybrid beacon at a midblock crosswalk is approximately $300,000. The cost to remove a midblock crosswalk is approximately $7,000. If a traffic signal or pedestrian hybrid beacon is installed, the annual maintenance costs will be approximately $3,200.

Fine said the agency with jurisdiction could choose whether to install the red lights or remove the beacon.

A companion Senate Bill is also being discussed. SB 1000 still has to go through one more committee before going to the Senate floor for a vote. A date for the committee hearing has not been set.

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