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A seatbelt killed my daughter

Danielle and Noel were horrified to discover that a child seatbelt killed their daughter.

Danielle Broadhead, 32, Mt St Thomas, NSW

Securing the seatbelt across my three-year-old daughter Isabelle's booster seat, I made sure she was tucked in. It was April 13, 2006, and I was taking Isabelle and her sister Madeleine, seven, to school.

My husband Noel, 41, kissed the girls goodbye and then we were on our way.

'The Easter Bunny's coming to preschool today,' Isabelle smiled.

'He'll be visiting us on the weekend too,' I told her, imagining how excited she would be about the Easter- egg hunt we'd planned.

Slowly driving down the road from our home, I was careful to take my time. As we approached the last bend, an oncoming truck appeared. It was travelling over the double lines.

He can't do that! I thought in a panic. I slammed on the brakes and swerved to the left. Narrowly avoiding the truck, we headed straight into a tree.

I remember my airbag inflating as we hit. Then my head flew back as the front of the car crumpled and the girls screamed in the back.

Turning around, it looked as though they were fine and I breathed a huge sigh of relief. They were clearly upset, but neither was crying.

isabelle'We're okay,' I promised, trying to calm them down. 'It was just an accident.'

Climbing out of the car, I took a few deep breaths, trying to clear my head. Noticing steam coming from under the bonnet, I quickly opened the side door, wanting to get the girls out before anything else happened.

'Come on sweetie,' I said, helping Madeleine out.

Leaning back in to get Isabelle, I sensed something wasn't right. She was leaning forward over her seatbelt with her head hanging down.

'Out you get,' I said, undoing her seatbelt. But as the clasp unlocked, she collapsed into my arms.

She was fine a second ago, I thought, dismayed.

Pulling her from the car, I laid her down. Apart from being pale, she looked okay.

Making a few uncomfortable sounds, she tried to roll over.

'Shhh,' I soothed her. 'You need to stay still.'

Madeleine was by my side. 'Can you hold her hand?' I asked. 'And keep talking to her.'

Running to the car, I grabbed my mobile and rang Triple-0. As I hurried back to Isabelle a driver pulled over.

'There's something wrong with my little girl,' I cried.

'I'm sure it's just shock,' he said, placing his jacket over Isabelle's little body.

Dialling Noel's number, my hands were shaking. 'We've had an accident,' I said, distraught. 'And Belle looks terrible.'

In minutes Noel was running down the hill towards us.

'I don't know what's wrong with her,' I sobbed.

Kneeling down on either side of her, Noel and I kept telling her she'd be okay, but she wasn't responding.

'Mummy and Daddy love you,' I repeated.

The ambulance arrived after 15 minutes. Taking one look at Isabelle, the paramedics whisked her away.

Noel went with her, while Madeleine and I followed in another ambulance.

We soon arrived at Wollongong Hospital and, in a neck brace, I was wheeled into the same room as Isabelle.

Lying on my back, I couldn't see a thing, but I could hear them working on her.

That's when the horror set in - because it sounded as though Isabelle was dying.

'Is she all right?' I frantically asked a nurse. 'Yes,' the nurse replied, but I could tell that it wasn't the truth.

Minutes later a doctor came to see Noel and me.

'We need to talk,' he began. 'No!' I cried, not wanting to hear.

'It would be cruel to keep working on her,' he said.

Crying hysterically, I couldn't understand how we'd come to this.

The accident hadn't been that bad. Only the front of the car had been damaged. And Isabelle seemed fine at first.

'What happened?' I kept asking. But the doctors didn't have any answers.

Telling Madeleine was awful.

'Something inside Isabelle broke, and it couldn't be fixed,' I told her gently. 'So she can't be with us anymore.'

Crying together, neither of us wanted to believe it. The nurses had to sedate me after that.

I remember Noel and me staying beside Isabelle for the rest of the day, while my friend Tracey looked after Madeleine. But the details are a blur.

The next week of my life was purgatory. I spent every second wondering what I could've done differently. What if we'd left home a minute earlier? What if I'd taken our other car?

isabelleIsabelle's funeral was held on April 20 in Dapto. I spent the day on autopilot.

Noel's daughters from a previous marriage, Hannah, 11, and Laura, 14, looked after Madeleine, the three of them united in their love for their baby sister.

We played Isabelle's favourite music at the start of the service and we all handed out Easter eggs after the funeral, knowing Isabelle would've loved it.

Afterwards, I channelled my grief into finding answers.

'It's mostly likely Isabelle died due to internal bleeding in her stomach,' her paediatrician said.

'But what could've caused that?' I asked, confused.

He couldn't say for sure, but implied it was her seatbelt.

My head reeled. The safety measure meant to protect my daughter had killed her?

At home, Noel and I started researching. We found many articles about children who had died from seatbelt injuries. They all read like our story. From what we gathered, it seemed booster seats with a standard adult seatbelt across them could be deadly in an accident.

'How can people have known this, yet not put out warnings?' I asked Noel, infuriated.

When Isabelle had grown out of her child-restraint seat with an in-built harness, all the information had said she should progress to a booster seat, with a normal car seatbelt across her.

Noel and I decided to email Professor Lynne Bilston, whose name appeared in some of the articles. She'd done research into child car restraints.

Telling her Isabelle's story, she had no doubt about what had caused her death.

'You're not the first family this has happened to,' Lynne told us. 'Unfortunately the law says only children up to 12 months need to be in a proper child-restraint seat.'

I couldn't believe the decision to buy Isabelle a booster seat had cost her life. 'We wouldn't have bought the booster if we'd known,' I sobbed. 'Why weren't we told to just get a bigger child restraint?'

When the coroner's report came in six months after Isabelle's death, it confirmed what we already knew.

'It says she died due to blunt-force injury caused by her seatbelt,' we read.

That week I sent a letter to the NSW Roads Minister, Eric Roozendaal, demanding the laws be changed.

All children under five should be placed in seats that have a five-point harness, I wrote.

Soon after, Mr Roozendaal replied, saying he was taking the matter to the National Transport Commission. And in May 2007, the commission agreed on a national strategy to change child-restraint laws.

'She hasn't died in vain,' I said to Noel.

family
Today our family includes Mason and baby Oliver

On November 5, 2009, Noel and I attended an announcement at Westmead Hospital, confirming the new child-restraint laws would be enacted in NSW from March 2010. It's already happened in Vic and other states will follow soon.

And while the law won't bring back my baby, hopefully it will save hundreds of lives.

Noel, Madeleine and I still talk about Isabelle every day and celebrate our memories of her.

We now have two new additions to the family - Mason and Oliver, and we've made sure they know about their sister.

Isabelle was an angel on earth, and now the law has been changed because of her, I know a lot of parents will be thanking my angel in heaven.

How do you feel about the new laws? Let us know by leaving a comment below.

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