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Recycling truck tragedy

The parents of Carla Lynne Neems, who died of traumatic head injuries after a collision with a recycling truck on her way home from school in 2017, say they do not accept the driver did not see her.

An inquest into the six-year-old’s death began yesterday in Gisborne, with coroner Tim Scott examining what occurred and whether recycling trucks can be made safer.

Waste Management, which owns the truck and employs the driver, Worksafe New Zealand, police, and the Neems are represented.

Sau Tulua Aliifaalogo, 37, was the single crewman of the 10-tonne dual-controlled Hino truck when the incident occurred on May 2, 2017.

He was cleared of careless use causing death after a judge-alone trial last November.

Yesterday he faced some tough questions from counsel for the other parties, especially the Neems’ lawyer Ben Vanderkolk, who said Carla’s parents did not accept Mr Aliifaalogo was blameless.

Carla was run over by the vehicle Mr Aliifaalogo was operating from the left-hand standing position as he moved it forward on Russell Street towards Fox Street.

His collection of the Neems’ family recycling was his last stop and coincided with Carla arriving home from Central School on her scooter via the footpath on the other side of the road.

Recommendations madeShe had left the company of an older child about 150 metres earlier.

Judge Arthur Tompkins, who heard the criminal case, said he was satisfied Mr Aliifaalogo did not see Carla.

Carla was likely in a “blind corridor” that extended about 15m slightly rearward from the right corner of the truck and reached variable widths up to about 0.8 metres, and variable heights.

It was identified at trial by Paul Bass, a licensed motor vehicle accident reconstructionist, employed by the defence.

Judge Tompkins said while Carla likely moved out of the corridor into an area where she was potentially visible to the driver, it was not careless for him not to have seen her in that moment.

Traversed in evidence yesterday were three recommendations highlighted in a recent police Serious Crash Unit report based on information received during the trial, including from Mr Bass.

Installation of a custom driver’s door low window to assist with vision through the “blind corridor” on the right-hand side of the truck when operating from the left-hand side driver’s position.Consideration to the installation of a pedestrian alarm sensor fitted to the front bumper while operating in LEV mode.Specific safety training for all drivers regarding pedestrian and cyclist awareness while operating in LEV mode.Police serious crash investigator Senior Constable Timothy Rowe and Massey University Professor of Ergonomics Stephen Legge, who prepared two reports for Worksafe NZ, gave evidence supporting the recommendations — particularly the consideration of an audible alarm.

They stressed it was a consideration, the practical application of which would need to be investigated before it could be recommended outright.

It was a good option as it would not add to the numerous visible checks already required of drivers.

Under cross-examination, Sr Const Rowe agreed with Mr Vanderkolk’s contention the “blind corridor” concept had a disproportionate influence in the trial. Sr Const Rowe said he found it hard to believe Carla was in it and would put it out of contention.

The coroner raised with Sr Const Scott the age at which it was acceptable for a child to make their own way home from school.

The coroner noted Safekids Aotearoa guidelines specified children riding scooters and skateboards must wear helmets and that those in Year 4 and below, must be accompanied by an adult.

He was also conscious of the risk of stranger danger for young children, albeit not directly relevant to this case.

Mr Aliifaalogo, cross-examined by police lawyer Baden Hilton, conceded his training for hazards was mainly for those to the rear and overhead.

Mr Hilton noted Mr Aliifaalogo, in test conditions after the incident, failed four times out of 11 to adequately complete a sequence of mirror checks. Once his foot slipped off the vehicle’s start-stop pedal, which is over-sized and prone to being activated accidentally.

Worksafe lawyer DeAnne Brabant noted there were three mirrors to the left and three to the right for the driver to check. Mr Aliifaalogo conceded he didn’t always do those checks to rule.

He also conceded Carla’s death occurred on a busy work day. He did not notice some of the people in the vicinity, including two women who were first to see Carla lying on the road.

Ms Brabant asked Mr Aliifaalogo if he had since thought of anything that might have prevented what occurred?

Mr Aliifaalogo replied, “no, it’s not my expert thing”. But he agreed an audible sensor could help, provided it could be heard while wearing hearing protection.

Mr Aliifaalogo rejected Mr Vanderkolk’s suggestion he failed to see Carla because he did not make the necessary checks.

With only about an-hour-and-a-half left to work that day, and having probably already lifted about 800 bins weighing up to 25 kilograms each, Mr Aliifaalogo was only concerned with getting to the next pick-up, Mr Vanderkolk said.

“You leapt in and drove and looked at the intersection and nothing else, and in doing so you didn’t see her (Carla) coming? She was visible to you if you’d bothered to look.”

Mr Aliifaalogo confirmed to Mr Vanderkolk drivers had no particular route to follow but determined how they would manage their run through casual collaboration while on the job, and that his supervisor was content with that.

While he knew what a Traffic Management Plan (TMP) was, Mr Aliifaalogo was unable to describe to the inquest how one applied.

He did not know the one held by the Gisborne District Council for the area that day had expired.

Mr Aliifaalogo’s formal statement included a comment he knew of the blind spot at the right-hand side of the vehicle.

But in two years of working for the company, Mr Aliifaalogo had never reported it, Mr Vanderkolk said.


Carla Neems. Picture supplied
ACCIDENT SCENE: Police officers near the intersection of Fox and Russell streets on May 2, 2017, after six-year-old Carla Neems was fatally struck by a rubbish truck outside her home. Gisborne Herald file picture