Sunday, March 12, 2006

Kerre Woodham: Girl's death a warning for farmers

I am very glad Gavin Vanner was found not guilty of manslaughter over the death of his 4-year-old daughter, Molly.

Letting the wee girl ride a 368kg quad bike was stupid, reckless and ended in disaster when the bike rolled, crushing her.

Vanner knows what he did was wrong and he's been punished far more cruelly than any sentence a court could hand down. He will mourn the death of that little girl for the rest of his life and I only hope the family can stay together through this dreadful time.

But what really astounded me was the attitude of the many farmers who supported Vanner, both in court and through the media. They seemed to think that it was perfectly acceptable for a 4-year-old to be allowed to ride a piece of heavy farm machinery and that now the jury had returned a sensible verdict, they could get back to letting preschoolers ride adult-sized farm quads without having sticky beaks from OSH interfering. You can't wrap kids in cotton wool, they expostulated.

They told stories of how they'd driven tractors when they were 3 years old while their dads fed out from the trailers behind and how they'd been riding horses since they were too young to walk and horses are just as dangerous and heavy as quad bikes.

And a number of them had a fatalistic approach, claiming that farming was a dangerous business and always had been.

They knew of kids when they were growing up who'd been killed when tractors rolled, or who'd been mulched in bailers, or who'd been killed by stock - and that was just the way it was.

When children were an integral part of the work unit on the farm, these things happened.

Besides, there weren't fancy-schmancy creches and childcare centres where farmers could dump their kids and go off and drink lattes.

Farmers take their children with them when they work on their farms because they have very few other options and according to these representatives of the rural community, you have to accept that sometimes there'll be accidents.

While I understand that accidents happen, I refuse to accept that it's okay for children to be collateral damage in the farming industry.

When you have the quad manufacturers and OSH saying that children should not be riding adult-sized ATVs until they're 16, when you have Federated Farmers, the umbrella organisation for the farming community, advising against kids riding these things, shouldn't you listen?

According to www.safekids.org.nz, around 60 kids a year are admitted to hospital after quad bike accidents. In 70 per cent of cases, the kids were in sole charge of the bike. That might be acceptable odds for some farmers but it sure as hell isn't for me.

And seeing as some people can't be relied upon to use good judgment, maybe it is time to legislate to try to reduce the number of kids ending up dead or injured because their parents don't believe they should be wrapped in cotton wool.

Molly Vanner is not the first child to die because she was riding an ATV and unless farmers take heed of the lessons in this tragic case, she won't be the last.

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