Kirsty Wynn

Kirsty Wynn is a senior reporter at the Herald on Sunday.

Surviving our driveways: Changes that can save children's lives

The design of the classic Kiwi section is fatally flawed. It has created a deathtrap for small children at risk of being run over. After a tragic summer on the nation’s driveways, we reveal new plans to protect our kids from reversing cars.

Mele and Teremoana Rima with grandson Malachi.  Photo / Doug Sherring
Mele and Teremoana Rima with grandson Malachi. Photo / Doug Sherring

The sound of hammers rings out on Bairds Rd. Mele and Teremoana Rima of Otara watch with transparent delight as a strapping team of Housing NZ contractors build a fence separating their driveway from their home and yard.

This week, the state housing agency began a multimillion dollar fencing and landscaping programme at thousands of properties with children, after figures revealing the familiar New Zealand post-war bungalow with a big lawn and a long driveway down the side - a Kiwiana icon - poses one of the greatest risks to small children of being run over by a reversing car.

The Rimas are among the first to benefit. The middle-aged couple have nine grandchildren. One, 15-month-old Malachi, lives with them.

And their three-bedroom, standalone house with a driveway running down to the garage at the back has been identified as one of those posing a high risk.

This morning, Malachi and his cousins will have a safe play area. "For me safety comes first, with my children and now my mokopuna," Mele says. The couple look forward to spending the rest of summer outside in the sun with their grandchildren.

House and driveway design is fatally flawed. As a nation we have an appalling record, with one of the highest rates of child driveway deaths in the OECD. Traditional long driveways, with a garage tucked up next to the house, shared driveways and unfenced drives that double as a play-space are the biggest killers.

Summer months, around midday and dinner time, are high-risk times. Children are outside more and busy parents are coming and going. Bigger households, with multiple or extended families under one roof are also hit hard. Tenants in state housing are over represented in driveway injuries.

Cassandra Rivers of Housing NZ says that will change. "Our focus is on providing a fenced and secure play area away from driveways in family homes," she says.

"As part of this programme, we will install driveway safety stickers to all assessed properties as well as installing driveway signage and speed restriction signs for shared driveways."

The company hopes to complete the first group of houses by June and is assessing the other 12,759 properties that have tenants with children 5 years or younger.

Mike Shepherd, clinical director at Starship Children's Hospital, says visitors should park on the street whenever possible. Every week he sees the pain and agony caused by avoidable driveway accidents.

Head injuries, chest injuries and severe abrasions are most common. About 11 per cent of the children who survive have injuries so severe they are left with a permanent disability.

"A child is the perfect, or rather imperfect, height and build," Shepherd explains. "They are hard to see behind a car and the way they fall when hit means the injuries can be devastating."

Shepherd is all for reversing cameras, mirrors and other driver aids but says these are never failsafe. He has seen plenty of kids run over by parents with late-model cars and reversing cameras.

"They do help, but by the time we update our fleet of cars, 100 more children will die," Shepherd says.

The best way to save kids is to keep them away from cars.

In a joint effort with Anne Weaver at Safekids, Shepherd has made submissions to Auckland Council to encourage shorter driveways with carparks by the road.

Weaver would also like to see rules around "manoeuvring areas" on properties changed.

The timing is perfect as Auckland Council is working on the draft Unitary Plan to replace the old sets of rules from each of the seven previous councils.

Auckland Council planning manager, Penny Pirrit, says anyone who wants to see changes to rules around driveway design should make a submission.

Due to be released on March 15, the draft Unitary Plan will include rules about the design of driveways and manoeuvring areas, within residential developments and where the driveways cross the footpath on to the road.

"Other factors include driver behaviour, supervision of children and design of vehicles like rear vision visibility, reversing alarms."

But council opinion and the message from Safekids and Starship seem to be at odds. Weaver says the existing requirement for turning space to move a car within the property, so it does not have to back onto a road, risks more lives.

"These manoeuvring areas just increase the risk to children because cars are driving around more and creating danger."

Backing cameras and reversing alarms are not foolproof either, Weaver says.

Pirrit promises the council will look more closely at residential developments with five or more dwellings and infill housing. She says more careful attention will be given to the design of the development.

This will include considering the location and design of parking, vehicle and pedestrian access.

Infill housing with shared, sometimes long, sloped, driveways has claimed too many lives already, says Mike Shepherd.

He describes with excitement a housing development he jogs past each morning that ticks all the boxes for driveway safety.

The multi-level block groups cars together with safe pedestrian access and separate green spaces, well away from danger.

As it turns out, it is a Housing New Zealand block and was designed with Safekids and Starship's research in mind.

'Park on the street'

Hawke's Bay toddler Georjah Heremaia survived serious internal injuries, including bleeding and a crushed liver, when she was run over by a courier van in her grandmother's driveway in September 2011.

Rosie Gillies was looking after her 17-month-old granddaughter when a Post Haste courier van pulled into the Hastings drive.

"I got the parcel, put it under the carport and when I turned around Georjah was at the back of the van," Rosie says.

Rosie did not see the van hit Georjah but she knew immediately something had happened.

"The driver handed me to her and she was crying. She was struggling to breathe and her colour had changed."

Georjah was taken to Hawke's Bay Regional Hospital, where she had emergency surgery before she was flown to Starship Children's Hospital with her parents.

Little Georjah's recovery was long but Rosie says she is now fully recovered and "walking good".

The driver of the courier van was not charged but Rosie said drivers should learn from the accident and park on the street rather than pulling in to a residential driveway.

'Watch out for kids'

Mikaela Froggatt-Smith knows first hand what it is like to survive a driveway accident.

When she was just 2, a visitor to a neighbour's house backed over her, pinning her under a 1200kg Ford Telstar.

Mikaela was eventually freed by emergency services who were amazed she survived and had suffered only bruising and a lacerated liver.

Now 16 and learning to drive, she wants to urge other motorists to look out for little kids especially when reversing.

"It's a weird feeling when I hear about little kids being hit in driveways, because I know what happened to me," Mikaela says.

'They stay inside with me now'

The image of her distraught husband sitting on the neighbours' drive, their bleeding son cradled in his arms is etched in Mele Alatini's memory.

It was 5pm when Vili Alatini arrived home from his job as a packer for Irvine's Pies. He pulled into the quiet Mangere cul de sac to see a worker driving down the sloped exit of the Kiwicare Daycare next door.

Playing at the bottom of the drive was 5-year-old Tikeni. Vili watched in horror as the tyres of the car went over his son.

"I jumped out and ran. I looked underneath and my son was stuck under there," Vili remembers.

"The lady started to reverse and I shouted not to move, I tried to lift the car and I yelled out to call an ambulance."

Distraught Vili managed to get his son free and then collapsed, holding his son's bleeding head in his lap.

"I thought my son was going to die. I was sad and I was angry," Vili says.

Mele was in the lounge of the pale blue Housing NZ home breastfeeding the couple's infant son Siope when she heard the screams.

"I ran outside and my mother-in-law and husband were there saying our Tikeni was hit, he was under the car," Mele remembers.

"He wasn't talking, he was just lying there." As awful as the ordeal was for the Alatini family they know they are the lucky ones - the ones with a second chance.

Tikeni, now 8, suffered severe facial injuries and abrasions to his body but he survived. Apart from the scars, has no permanent physical damage.

These days, the Alatini kids don't get to play outside much. It has been two years since Tikeni was run over and Mele likes her five children close by, even if that means playing inside on a sweltering summer's day.

She hugs baby Epalahame close as she gestures outside. "There are no fences so they stay inside with me now. It's not safe."

The Housing NZ initiative is welcomed by the Alatini family and 8-year-old Tikeni. They would like nothing better than a fenced yard, away from cars and the lure of the open space of the cul de sac.

They look forward to a summer spent outside in the sun - a safe summer of second chances.

'This has wrecked our family'

Destiny Whiunui smiles as she watches a video clip of her little boy Brodee.

The short snippets of the 2-year old chatting to the camera are all the heartbroken mum has left of her son. Brodee died when he was run over on his grandparents' Adriveway this summer. His father, Rima Whiunui, was behind the wheel.

Destiny's smile fades as the clip ends. Then the tears come.

"I am his mum, I was supposed to protect him," Destiny says. "I watch videos of him every day. I put myself through more pain but I can't help myself, I have to see him and hear him."

The close-knit family were at Destiny's parents' house in Papakura that night in November.

Last-minute dinner plans were made and Rima jumped in the car to get some takeaways.

Destiny thought Brodee was in the car with his dad and Rima thought he was on the porch.

Brodee was by the back left tyre. He died instantly from head injuries so bad the family could not perform CPR.

An ambulance was called immediately but Destiny knew there was no hope.

"I yelled to Rima 'come here with me, let's hold our son'. I just wanted us all to embrace him and love him. I knew he was gone."

Since the accident, the family have been consumed with grief. They spend their days blaming themselves, but never each other.

"Everyone told my husband it was not his fault but it is still hard for him," Destiny says. "We were all there that night so we all blame ourselves."

Destiny was seven months pregnant when Brodee died. His newborn sister, also named Destiny, never met her brother.

"He used to kiss my stomach all the time - he would have loved his sister."

The family has asked Housing NZ to fence the front of their property to block access to the driveway. Grandmother Fiona parks a bike in the way now so no cars can come up.

As we are leaving, a Housing NZ representative arrives. The agency is going to fence the front yard.

It is too late for Brodee but his grandmother Fiona says it is good news.

"I have 13 more mokopuna to protect and I don't want to go through this ever again. This has wrecked our family."

Tips for safer driveways

Rated by Ann Weaver from Safekids

* Backing into driveway: Dangerous for children and other road users

* Turning areas: More manoeuvres means more risk

* Reversing alarm: Can attract the children they're meant to warn

* Family education: Increased awareness of dangers and blindspots

* Pedestrian access: All homes should have separate access

* Backing cameras: Cheaper ones have tunnel view

* Driveway design: Short driveways pose less risk

- Herald on Sunday

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