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Death traps that can't be banned around kids

The Sun-Herald

Sunday 7 September 2003
By FRANK WALKER

A MAGISTRATE has blasted parents who drive large four-wheel-drive vehicles around children as she sentenced a mother for running over a five-year-old girl at school.

Manly Court magistrate Carmel Forbes was convicting Joan Waterhouse, 29, of Ingleside of negligent driving occasioning death for running over Bethany Holder in her Nissan Patrol inside the grounds of Pittwater House School at Collaroy.

Ms Forbes sentenced Waterhouse to 250 hours of community service and disqualified her from driving for three years.

“One might question the propriety of driving vehicles of such size around small children,” Ms Forbes said from the bench.

During the trial, the father of the little girl described seeing the red four-wheel-drive hit his daughter as he took her into the school on July 24 last year.

The magistrate's attack highlights a growing concern about the hordes of large four-wheel-drives dropping off and picking up children around schools.

Daniel Holder told the court how he parked outside Pittwater House School and was walking Bethany and his 11-year-old daughter, Emily, into the school grounds.

He paused at the school gates to put on Bethany's hat as it kept sliding off her pigtails. He smiled at her and then walked ahead to catch up to his other daughter, Emily.

What happened next is every parent's nightmare. A Nissan Patrol entered the school gates and turned left to cross the path leading into the school towards a parking spot.

Mr Holder said he looked back just in time to see the vehicle's bullbar hit Bethany. He saw her fall to the ground and the vehicle kept on going right over her. He ran back screaming for the driver to stop.

“I saw her on the roadside of the front wheel, lying on the ground, and went to hold her, take her, just reach for her,” he told the court.

He sensed that the driver was about to reverse and pulled Bethany out of the way before the vehicle could go over her again.

But little Bethany was dead. Mr Holder told the court he heard the driver, Waterhouse, who also had a child at the school, get out and cry: “I didn't see her, I didn't see her.”

In her statement to police, Waterhouse said she was going slowly, getting ready to park and felt a bump, but did not see Bethany, who was only 102 centimetres tall.

Waterhouse's lawyer, Eugene Wasilenia , said she was devastated and visited Bethany's grave frequently. “She is a mother-of-two and was devastated,” he said.

Daniel and Lisa Holder migrated from England to live in Cromer just eight months before Bethany was killed. Yesterday, they echoed the magistrate's call for safety around schools.

“We appeal to every person driving around schools to be extra careful and wary for small children who will be there,” Mr Holder said.

The couple said drivers of large vehicles, such as four-wheel-drives, should be aware that their vehicles had blind spots and they could not blame their vehicles for accidents.

Mrs Holder is now expecting a baby. She said she will always remember Bethany as a happy little girl who laughed and charmed everyone. At Bethany's funeral, her teacher, Sue Heffernan, said as soon as Bethany arrived at school she weaved a magic spell and brightened everyone's day.

“Many a teacher would look down to feel a warm little hand in theirs and a little voice asking `Are you my friend?' She will always be our friend.”

Her school bought naming rights for a star in Bethany's name from the International Astronomical Union . On Friday night, the Holder family joined hundreds of school friends to gaze through telescopes to find Bethany's star in the constellation of Scorpius.

A plaque on her favourite playground equipment reads `In loving memory of Bethany Violet Holder, Our Shining Star'.

The school's acting principal, Richard Morgan , said he wished he could ban large four-wheel-drives from the school grounds.

“They are so big and it is difficult to see little kids but, unless there is some legal basis to restrict them, they are just a regular vehicle the same as a car,” he said.

After the accident, traffic safety experts recommended fences to separate the drive-in area from the school area and traffic can now flow only in one direction.

A traffic warden motions vehicles in and out of parking spaces. The school undertook intensive traffic safety campaigns for drivers and children. Children under 10 must be supervised and those under eight must hold hands with adults or older children. Mr Morgan said he would like to see all schools adopt similar traffic measures.

The chairman of the Pedestrian Council of Australia, Harold Scruby , said four-wheel-drives should be regarded as trucks, not cars.

“[They] are big heavy vehicles that are eight times more likely to kill the occupant of a smaller vehicle than an ordinary car in a side-impact collision,” he said.

“Out of 18 children killed last year from reversing in driveways, 12 involved four-wheel-drives.”

The president of the NSW Primary Schools Principals' Association, Geoff Scott, said: “Some parents think it is imperative to pull up right next to the gate. That can be dangerous.”