Child restrained with mother by one seatbelt killed in crash

Seatbelt failed to protect girl (8) sitting on mother’s lap during collision, inquest told

The dangers of two people using a single seatbelt were highlighted at an inquest on Tuesday into the death of a eight-year-old girl killed in a two-car collision in West Cork last summer.

Zoe Scannell was killed almost instantly when she suffered massive internal injuries in the collision at Burgatia near Rosscarbery on the N71 road on June 26th, 2014.

Zoe was sitting on her mother Alisha’s lap and Alisha had placed a seat belt around both of them, but it failed to protect Zoe in the impact, the inquest into her death heard.

Forensic crash investigator Garda Ray Sweeney said using a seatbelt for two people or an adult and a child sitting on their lap was "far from ideal", as it did not offer proper protection.


Absorbing force

He said the purpose of a seatbelt is to restrain a person being thrown from their seat in a crash, with the seatbelt absorbing the force of their mass as they are thrown forward.

But with one person sitting on another’s lap, the person in front absorbs all the force of the person behind when they are both thrown forward on impact and restrained by the seatbelt.

The inquest heard how Ms Scannell and Zoe, from Kilconnolly Lower, Abbeyfeale, Co Limerick, were holidaying in West Cork with friends when the incident happened.

They were rear seat passengers in a Nissan Primera being driven by their friend Maurice Hickey, whose partner Siobhan Murphy was in the front seat.

The couple’s two children, Fionn and Matthew, were in the back seat, with Fionn in a baby seat and Matthew in the middle. Each had their own seatbelt.

The inquest heard they were driving up a bend at Burgatia towards Rosscarbery when a silver Audi A3 came around the bend and veered on to the incorrect side of the road.

Mr Hickey said the Audi 3 seemed to turn sideways and went into the front of his car, causing extensive damage to the vehicle and injury to himself and his five passengers.

Slumped unconscious

Ms Scannell said that when rescuers removed her seatbelt, her daughter Zoe slumped down unconscious and she asked rescuers was she still breathing, and they told her she was.

Zoe was taken to Cork University Hospital, where she was pronounced dead. A postmortem revealed she had suffered massive internal injuries and had died at the scene.

Ms Scannell was airlifted by helicopter to hospital, where she spent 11 days after suffering perforations to her bowel, lacerations to her spleen and kidney, and fractured ribs.

The inquest heard the Audi 3 had been driven by unaccompanied learner-driver, 17-year-old Ian Lawlor O’Donovan, who had only started driving three months earlier.

Mr Lawlor O’Donovan didn’t attend Tuesday’s inquest, but he told gardaí in a statement that he remembered starting to lose control of the car as he descended the bend at Burgatia.

“I have a recollection of my car sliding broadsides towards the ditch - there was another car coming towards me - I saw it coming towards me out my passenger window,” he said.

“My next recollection was waking up in the car - I remember when I got out, my car was facing towards where I had come from - the bonnet was pushed up and it was in bad shape.”

Mr Lawlor O’Donovan’s car had slid down a 4-metre ravine beside the roadway and he had to be helped back up to the roadway by paramedics, the inquest heard.

Garda Sweeney said Mr Lawlor O’Donovan’s car had spun on to the wrong side of the road and was over two metres on to the wrong side when it crashed into Mr Hickey’s car.

Driver input

He said he could find no evidence of any impact forcing the car over to the wrong side prior to the crash and could only conclude it was as a result of driver input into the steering.

The jury returned a verdict of accidental death and that Zoe died of massive internal injuries due to blunt force trauma consistent with a road crash involving two vehicles.

Coroner for West Cork, Frank O’Connell, extended his sympathies to Ms Scannell on the loss of her daughter, while Insp Jerry Lacey sympathised on behalf of gardaí.

In April, Mr Lawlor O'Donovan, of the Grove, Ardagh East, Rosscarbery, pleaded guilty at Cork Circuit Criminal Court to dangerous driving causing the death of Zoe Scannell.

Judge Sean O Donnabhain imposed a two-year jail term but suspended it after Alisha Scannell said that she did not wish to see Mr Lawlor O'Donovan go to jail.

Barry Roche

Barry Roche

Barry Roche is Southern Correspondent of The Irish Times