real life

Peter accidentally ran over and killed his toddler. He relives it everyday to help save lives.

Today, Friday May 31, is Fatality Free Friday, an initiative of the Australian Road Safety Foundation that aims to encourage drivers to consciously think about road safety and safe driving in order to reduce the road toll to zero. Even for one day. That alone could save five lives. For more information, visit the ARSF website.

Warning: the following contains details that may distress some readers.

It took 10 minutes for the ambulance to arrive at the Cockburn’s home near Young, NSW. Each one of those minutes stretched cruelly in Emma and Peter‘s panic. Their 15-month-old daughter had been struck by Peter’s tool trailer as he reversed his ute into their garage.

Despite their best efforts and those of paramedics and doctors, Georgina — or Georgy, as her family called her — was pronounced dead at Young Hospital that evening. April 16, 2011.

Low-speed vehicle run-overs (LSVR) such as this result in the deaths of seven Australian children annually and leave another 60 seriously injured. In most cases, the driver is a parent, relative or friend.

As the ambulance had driven away that April evening, Peter knew he could respond one of two ways.

“I remember screaming and screaming; I let out a lot. Then something came over me,” Peter  told Mamamia. “‘Think about others. Stop being selfish.’

“It’s surreal. There are a lot of things going through your mind, and I could have easily just felt sorry for myself. ‘I can’t believe this has happened to me.’ You know, ‘the world is against me’, and ‘everyone owes me something’. But at the end of the day, I took responsibility for my own actions and my mindset was to try to fix this situation, not go and sit in a room and sulk, because that wouldn’t help anybody. It would put a lot more people in pain and also put myself in a really bad situation.”

Video by Australian Road Safety Foundation

Georgy’s death was a tragedy of circumstance. Emma was mowing the lawn at the time, and had left her and her three siblings — the eldest then aged five-and-a-half — safely inside the house. Somehow, Georgy had managed to crawl into the garage as her builder father returned from work.

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An inquisitive toddler, Georgy was the youngest of the Cockburn children.

“She was such a bubbly child,” Peter told Mamamia. “She could always put a smile on your face when you had a bad day at work. And constantly a little cheeky. She’d be into everything that she shouldn’t be. It’s just such a tragedy. They always take the good ones.”

Emma and Peter’s pact: “There’s no point blaming ourselves”.

Peter lives with what happened everyday. Privately, in quiet moments. But also publicly through the Georgina Josephine Foundation, an organisation he and Emma founded in Georgy’s honour. He tells their story over and over, reliving the trauma in the hope that it may spare another family the same grief.

That determination also helped preserve Peter and Emma’s relationship in the wake of the accident. It was the foundation of a pact the couple made in the hours afterwards.

“We were both in the hospital room with [Georgy] in our arms, and I said, ‘We can’t change what’s happened. We’re both at fault (we realised that quite early). There’s no point blaming ourselves.’ So we just made a pact that we wouldn’t blame each other and would just move forward, because we have our three beautiful children that we’ve got to look after and we need to be as normal as we possibly can for them,” Peter said.

“As hard as it is, you do have to move on and continue to be a parent and a husband. You just try and put the bad things in the back of your mind, and try to laugh and smile and be the best you possibly can for everyone around you. Because they were obviously innocent people in this. So you’ve got to try and comfort them as well and put yourself last, pretty much.”

Another thing Peter and Emma resolved to do early on was not keep the truth from their children.

“I told them what happened, and we constantly talk about it,” Peter said. “Whenever they have questions we openly answer them. They’re not silly; they know what’s going on, so I didn’t think it was right to tell them some other story that wasn’t true. We talk about it. And they love helping us with the Foundation when they can — ‘spending time with Georgy’, as we call it.”

The Georgina Josephine Foundation.

The Georgina Josephine Foundation’s key purpose is two-fold. The first, is to support families who’ve been affected by an LSVR, and the second is to educate people about ways in which they can prevent such an accident. From how to secure garage doors to blind-spot awareness. As he’s discovered, both of these interventions can be a matter of life and death.

“These vehicles are a lethal weapon, and when we are when we’re occupied, as busy as parents are, it certainly puts us in area that we can actually make a mistake,” he said.

“In common areas, there’s probably a 10 metre blind-spot behind the car when you reverse, unless you have a camera.

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“Even then, I think we’re becoming so complacent, thinking that technology is going to actually stop us from running over or running into anything. That’s not always the case. We’ve got to be alert and not be fixated on one camera or one mirror or listen to one sensor; we’ve got to constantly keep circulating with our vision.”

The foundation's reversing blindspot demonstration. Image: supplied.

When the worst does happen, the foundation offers support to help families navigate through the grief and the guilt.

"Obviously there is counselling out there, but sometimes it also helps to talk to somebody that actually has been there and knows that what you're feeling. It doesn't take the pain away, but it certainly eases the view of it," he said.

Now, when a story like theirs surfaces, Emma and Peter reach out personally to those involved.

"Unfortunately we've had people who we couldn't get in contact with die by suicide. I guess, it just got too much for them. So if we're actually preventing them from doing that, well then that's certainly worthwhile," he said. "On a couple of occasions, people have actually come back to us and said that we've helped them a lot through their dark thoughts."

The kind of service wasn't available to Peter and Emma after Georgy's death.

"There was just a general counsellor working in the local area, which we didn't want to talk to because it was just so real, and in a small town word can get out really quick. So we found that there wasn't really much support there at all," he said.

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Georgy. Image: Supplied.

The work, no matter how worthwhile, takes its toll on Peter.

"At night, when the lights go out, is the hardest time. That's when you miss them, and the thoughts and the 'what ifs' come in, for sure," Peter said.

"But it's very rewarding to actually get that message out there and have people listen to us and go home and change their environment or change the way that they drive their vehicle. It's also a way of keeping our daughter in our thoughts; we're still spending time with her."

People often call Peter and Emma 'brave' for what they do, but it's not a word that sits comfortably with him.

"We're not brave. We're just people reliving our experience and to prevent it from happening to anybody else," he said. "When you are put in a situation, you can be surprised what kind of person you are. And yet we don't believe it's brave thing. We just we just really believe that this is two people trying to help."

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The Georgina and Josephine's driveway safety message is simple: Remember the three Ss — supervise, separate, see.

Supervise

  • Have a system at home where, when a vehicle is moving on your property who has the kids? Is someone holding them, are they in a safe place?
  • Wave goodbye to people from inside the door, or through the window.
  • Treat the driveway as a small road — roads are not safe places for children to play.
  • If you are the only one at home and you need to move the car, put them in the car with you.
  • Teach your children about car safety.

Separate

  • Separate children from vehicle areas around the home: Does your house have an attached garage? Is there a door between them for easy access? For tips on dealing with this, visit the Georgina Josephine Foundation website.
  • Fence driveways and play areas. Is fencing the driveway a possibility? Can you create a safe fenced-off area in the backyard where children can play, without accessing driveway and garage areas easily?
  • Do you keep the front door locked, so there is no easy access to the front yard/driveway and road way?

See

  • Whenever you go to drive a vehicle, do a ‘Circle of Safety’ check around your vehicle before you get in and start the car.
  • Use a rear vision camera like a mirror, to increase visibility at the rear of a vehicle. Many vehicles have sensors or cameras in them, but retro-fit cameras can be installed.

For more information about Peter and Emma's work and to donate, please visit the Georgina Josephine Foundation website.

If you or a loved one is struggling, mental health crisis support is available 24 hours a day through Lifeline. Please call 13 11 14 .

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