Coroner rules six-year-old killed by truck shouldn't have been walking home alone

A coroner has ruled a six-year-old Gisborne girl killed by a rubbish truck shouldn't have been walking home alone.

Carla Neems was on her way home from school on May 2 2017, a journey she usually made with her two older sisters aged 8 and 10. Her sisters weren't with her on the afternoon she died, but Carla had been accompanied by two other young children as she rode her scooter the 450m home.

They parted ways 100m from Carla's house on Russell St. A Waste Management truck was collecting rubbish from the street's bins and was positioned outside the house when Carla crossed the road to enter her driveway.

As she passed in front of the vehicle the driver moved the truck forward, hitting and killing her instantly.

Since Carla's death, counsel for the Neems family has made several submissions about the circumstances, including that the rubbish truck driver drove erratically and failed to check his mirrors sufficiently. The driver has been acquitted of careless use of a vehicle causing death.

Coroner Tim Scott rejected these claims in his ruling, and says her death could have been prevented had she been accompanied by an adult. 

He says "common sense" establishes her safety was "parental responsibility, not school responsibility".

"I do not accept that it was acceptable for Carla to go to and from school in the care of her older siblings - and part of the way home alone," he says.

"The siblings were too young to be vested with that responsibility. Sadly, the confidence that Mr and Mrs Neems had about Carla's road safety awareness was misplaced and flies in the face of what happened."

Scott also cited a Safe Kids guide which says children in Year 4 or below shouldn't be allowed to ride scooters unless supervised by an adult. Carla was in Year 2. He says the senior constable who wrote the police crash investigation initially believed Carla was old enough to scooter home by herself, but conceded she should have been supervised after the coroner brought up the risk of "stranger danger".

There are no specific transport laws specified in the Road Code about unsupervised walking age requirements, but under New Zealand law it is illegal to leave a child home alone if they're under the age of 14. 

Carla's father Dion Neems says the coroner's ruling that children should be walked to and from school by an adult is often impractical. 

"We live in a quiet street with very low levels of traffic, one crossing on the way to school and she was always walked there by her older siblings," he told NZME.

"[Carla] only walked the last 100m on her own - so we feel as parents that we mitigated that risk well."

Education Minister Chris Hipkins told Newshub his thoughts are with Carla's family, friends and the school community dealing with the "heartbreaking situation". 

"I think it's every parents worst nightmare. I don't think there's really a lot I can add to this situation I don't think Government's should be getting involved in regulating how kids get to and from school.

"I think that those are matters that ultimately are decisions for parents and for school communities. Yes, we do have a role though in promoting road safety and all of those sorts of things and we'll continue to do that but beyond that I don't think it's something that should be getting involved with or the government should be getting involved with."

He says he believes schools do try really hard to promote safe transport to and from school to prevent circumstances such as Carla's from happening. 

The coroner recommended that Waste Management fit its fleet with audio alarms that would alert drivers to people or items in the immediate vicinity, and signage warning pedestrians that the vehicles stop often. Front view cameras were suggested as an alternative if audio alarms prove impossible to install. 

Scott says if the company takes these measures in the next six months, it will make "a similar tragedy highly unlikely".

Waste Management says it's already begun implementing the coroner's recommendations and is confident they'll be finished within the six-month timeline.

"This was a terrible accident and Waste Management acknowledges the findings of the Coroner from his inquiry, which were released earlier in the month," managing director Tom Nickels says.

"Since June, all new Low Entry Vehicle trucks introduced into our fleet are supplied with proximity audio alarms as a standard feature."

Retrofitting existing trucks with the alarms is also underway.

"In relation to the recommendation for additional signage on our trucks, our Health and Safety team has commenced work on this," Nickels says. "Next step will be to enter discussions with the New Zealand Transport Authority, to obtain their approval for the signs to be applied.

"Again, we are confident we can resolve this within the Coroner’s timeframe."


Contact Newshub with your story tips: