Sydney Morning Herald - Tuesday 17 May, 2005

The right to drive is not a right to kill

By Miranda Devine
Page: 15
Section: General News
Region: Sydney Circulation. 214,005
Type: Capital City Daily
Size: 664.20 sq.cms.
The push against big 4WDs in the wrong hands is gathering speed, writes Miranda Devine.

HALLELUJAH. It took the terrible death of five-year-old Bethany Holder but at last the truth is being told about big, heavy four-wheel-drives. No more pussyfooting around about personal choice. No more pandering to the influential 4WD lobby. No more hearing "cars don't kill, people do".

No more pretense that a two-tonne Nissan Patrol or Toyota LandCruiser isn't a lethal menace on suburban streets, especially to small children.

The senior deputy State Coroner, Jacqueline Milledge, a former police officer, minced no words this week during her inquest into the death of kindy student Bethany, who was run over by a Nissan Patrol with bullbar in the grounds of her Collaroy school in 2002.

"I am not going to let arrogant people who think that the roads belong to them, and who think that they should be able to take their kids right to the doorstep to drop them off, get away with it," Milledge said in Glebe coroners court this week as Bethany's shattered parents, Daniel and Lisa Holder, looked on.

Drivers treated their 4WDs as their "own little private buffer zone", said Milledge. "There is a comfort zone, a sense of superiority. They are above it all. We see these types of vehicles involved in pedestrian deaths far too often." Amen.

At last people are talking seriously about curbing the use of these suburban killing machines which the Federal Chamber of Automotive Industries now formally classifies as SUVs (sports utility vehicle) to differentiate them from regular-sized all-wheel-drive cars.

Milledge recommended that 4WDs weighing two tonnes or more be banned from school grounds and within 200 metres, and that the drivers be required to hold special licences.

But steel needs to be inserted in the spine of the Toyota Prado 4WD-driving Roads Minister, Michael Costa, if he is to prevail against the 4WD lobby. There is already an attempt to defuse growing public hostility against big 4WDs on to all cars, rendering impossible any plan to remove the monsters from schools. On Tuesday Costa rejected the coroner's idea of special licences and said "on first glance" restricting the huge vehicles around schools was unworkable.

In February when North Sydney Council announced it would slug big 4WDs more for parking permits, Costa dismissed the plan as "PC nonsense". "Law-abiding motorists shouldn't be made to feel like criminals because of the car they drive."

Why not, if the car they drive is a lethal weapon they can't handle? Seventy per cent of motorists are afraid of big 4WDs, a survey last year for insurer AAMI showed. With good reason, since big 4WDs are four times more likely to kill passengers in a normal car in a collision and their drivers seem so often arrogant and oblivious.

Few people are better qualified to warn of the perils of two-tonne behemoths than the driver of the Nissan Patrol which ran over Bethany while pulling into a parking space on the Pittwater House School grounds.

Joan Waterhouse, 31, who was convicted in 2003 of negligent driving occasioning death, said she never saw pigtailed Bethany, who at 102 centimetres tall, was almost a head shorter than the 110-centimetre high bonnet of the Nissan Patrol.

"I don't think they are a safe vehicle," she said. "I don't see the point of having them on city roads. Everyone has rights to drive their cars and they're available but I think there needs to be a lot more training done in people driving four-wheel-drives and maybe having the licensing changed."

Now using the surname Maclennan, she told reporters this week that the tragedy "ruined my marriage. I'm no longer married because of the stress".

There is no doubt in the mind of Raphael Grzebieta, president of the Australasian College of Road Safety, who testified at Bethany's inquest, that if Waterhouse had been in a car with a normal-height bonnet, she would have seen the child. Two-tonne vehicles in an area with children are a "recipe for disaster", the Monash University associate professor said yesterday. "Kids of kindy and grade 1 are at a height you can't see over the bonnet of the big two-tonne vehicles. The whole situation was against Joan being able to perceive poor Bethany."

Grzebieta says, in industry, great effort is put into traffic design to avoid "conflicts" between people and trucks or forklifts, even when operated by experts.

Companies and the army train staff before they operate four-wheel-drives. Yet any woman who has driven a Corolla all her life can slip behind the wheel of a Pajero without warning and descend on schools. "It's just as much an occupational health and safety issue at schools because it is the children's workplace. But they're in no position to protect themselves at their age."

The coroner's recommendations come as a worldwide backlash against big 4WDs reaches a crescendo, from Paris to North Sydney. The Pedestrian Council's Harold Scruby detects a hardening of public attitudes against the monster trucks which politicians should capitalise on. And he warns of the time bomb waiting ahead, as the present generation of Nissan Patrols and Range Rovers are sold cheaply to P-plate drivers.

A special licence for big 4WDs, with age and even height restrictions, is not unreasonable. The Federal Government should at least stop the absurd import tariff subsidy on 4WDs, originally intended to help farmers, not Woollahra mums, to delete the discount which makes them such an attractive prospect to families.

After the accident in 2002, Waterhouse emailed me angrily to explain why she drove a 4WD: "I did not have a 4WD for an extension of my ego. I had it because my husband and my little boys (oh, yes, I have children, two actually, one was Bethany's age - and feelings) go camping every fortnight and I had a child-care business that requires more seats than your standard Commodore or Falcon."

While the dangers of 4WDS are ignored by legislators, the vehicles will remain attractive options, roads will be more dangerous than necessary and more people will suffer as the Waterhouse and Holder families do.


Sydney Morning Herald - Saturday 21 May 2005

Drive them out

I've spent years disagreeing with almost everything Miranda Devine writes and now, to my amazement, up she comes with the most commonsense article on the dreaded four-wheel-drive phenomenon that I've read ("The right to drive is not a right to kill", Herald, May 19).

These monsters have no place in the urban environment, let alone near schools. I hope Devine is right when she says there is a growing backlash against them.

Michael Brock Floreat (WA)

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