This report summarises the incidence and characteristics of events involving fatalities of young children in Australia as a result of low-speed motor vehicle impacts during 1996, 1997 and 1998 (the latest years for which full records are available).
These low-speed events are of a different character to pedestrian deaths occurring at normal traffic speeds. They typically involve very young children - mainly toddlers - in private driveways or other private property, and require their own set of safety countermeasures.
The report was initiated in response to a request from the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Transport and Regional Services, Senator Ron Boswell. This followed studies in New South Wales that indicated a significant number of driveway fatalities of young children in that State. It was decided to conduct a closer examination of all recent cases across Australia using available coronial information together with a review of the published literature.
Based on the 36 cases identified from information on death summaries held by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, deaths of young children from low-speed motor vehicle impacts averaged 12 annually throughout Australia during the study period, with some year-to-year variation. There were 17 deaths in 1996, ten in 1997 and nine in 1998. Whereas this type of low-speed accident is primarily a non-traffic phenomenon, the scope of the report was not restricted to events on private property. A number of the accidents included within the report occurred on the street.
The report summarises information extracted from coronial records about each of the cases. Details of the age, height and sex of the deceased child, the circumstances leading up to the accident and the vehicle and driver characteristics are summarised to identify patterns in accident circumstances that may facilitate an understanding of how future accidents might be avoided. Several common threads run across the cases. Most of the cases involved young toddlers who had positioned themselves close by a stationary vehicle. These children were old enough to be mobile, but too small to be easily visible from the driving position when close to the vehicle. Less commonly, the child had been unseen for reasons not associated with close proximity to the front or rear of the vehicle. These cases often involved children who had positioned themselves partially or fully underneath stationary heavy trucks.
Most of the accidents occurred at or near the childs home, where both the parent and the child may have felt that the child was safe. The immediate location was most commonly the driveway of a suburban residence. The driver of the vehicle was most likely to be a man and was generally a family member or a friend of the family. None of the cases involved a shared driveway.
The vehicles tended to be large, the majority being large 4WD passenger vehicles, large utility vehicles, delivery vans or heavy trucks, although either a sedan or a station wagon was involved in one-fifth of the cases. The predominance of large vehicles in these accidents contrasts with the fact that sedans and station wagons account for about two out of every three pedestrian traffic deaths in Australia. This is unlikely to be attributable solely to the fact that a low-speed collision involving a heavy vehicle is more likely to result in a fatality than one involving a sedan. The accidents involving passenger vehicles predominantly entailed vehicles reversing in driveways. More than half of the passenger vehicles were large 4WDs, but the reason for this over-representation remains unclear. The relatively high sitting position of the driver in large 4WDs tends to counteract any reduction in the drivers field of view resulting from the high window sills in such vehicles, but that benefit is significantly compromised in some models by the fitment of a spare wheel high on the rear door.
Commercial vehicles also featured prominently. Heavy trucks, large utilities and delivery vans were over-represented. The accidents involving these vehicles took place in a wide variety of locations, not just driveways, and entailed forward-moving vehicles as often as rearward-moving ones. The drivers all-round field of view is clearly an issue with heavy trucks being manoeuvred in places frequented by young children. Given that some of the truck accidents involved children who had positioned themselves underneath the truck or between the truck and its trailer, countermeasures directed at these vehicles will need to address more than just the forward and rearward vision from the driving position. The reason for the over-representation of large utilities and delivery vans is less clear. Little information is available to indicate whether or not the drivers field of view had been affected by possible blind spots or objects carried in the vehicles.
There is little to indicate that these types of deaths would be avoided by enhancements in medical intervention. The solution lies in the avoidance of such accidents. The development of countermeasures can be broadly classified under increasing public awareness, modifying the driveway environment and enhancing motor vehicle safety. Increasing public awareness on how these tragic accidents may occur is a priority. Families with small children need to be particularly mindful of the dangers of slow-moving vehicles. The considerable variation in the particular circumstances of each of the cases studied indicates that care should be taken in every circumstance in which there is a possibility of young children being nearby. Given that many of the cases involved a child who, without being seen, had followed an adult from a house, an important specific message for parents is to be vigilant about the adequacy and use of door catches as soon as children become mobile.
Targeting families with small children is possible through early childhood centres and hospitals. Specific attention is warranted for rural Australia, where a large proportion of the accidents occurred and where there may be less scope to provide information via early childhood centres. Targeted material may need to counter possible perceptions that motor vehicles pose minimal dangers in low traffic areas.
Given that a number of the cases involved heavy trucks that were generally garaged at home, there is also a need to stress additional care by those who drive large vehicles for a living and park their vehicles at home. Modifying the driveway environment and creating safe play areas for children is an important priority although the implementation of any plan that targets families most at risk may not be straightforward. Further research in this area is warranted.
Enhancing motor vehicle safety is another important component of a comprehensive preventative strategy. Attention needs to be directed towards improving the drivers visual ergonomics in all types of vehicles, including sedans, and eliminating objects fitted to the interior or exterior of vehicles that are responsible for significant blind spots in the drivers field of view. There is also a potential role for technological measures to enhance object detection. Such measures include proximity sensors, additional mirrors, wide-angles lenses and video systems. Whereas it is unlikely that a proximity sensor could be developed that would work as a stand-alone measure, it may be feasible to develop a viable countermeasure of moderate cost based on a combination of proximity sensor and a wide-angle video camera system. Such measures will nevertheless rely critically upon increased awareness and care on the drivers part.
Type: Research and Analysis Report
Sub Type: Consultant Report
Author(s): Terry Neeman, Jim Wylie, Robyn Attewell, Kathryn Glase and Adam Wallace
ISBN: 0 642 25592 X
Topics: Child, Fatality, Vehicle design
Publication Date: 01/04/02