Tragedies Spark Push for Vehicle-Safety Reform

It may be hard for anyone to fully comprehend the pain of a parent whose child has been run over, especially if the parent or another close relative was the driver.

But Greg and Leslie Gulbransen can. And Matthew and Lisa Cavallaro. And Bill and Adriann Nelson.

All three families were sharing the grief of a Bellport man Monday after hearing that he had run over his 2-year-old son, a reminder of how they had lost their children.

In October 2002, Gulbransen backed over his 2-year-old son with a sport utility vehicle. In April last year, a close relative backed over 16-month-old Alec Nelson, again with an SUV. Matthew Cavallaro was also driving one when he backed over his 2-year-old daughter two months later.

All three children were killed.

The families say they know what Robert Palange must have been feeling soon after backing over his son, Bobby, Monday morning, leaving him critically injured.

"He's completely devastated," Gulbransen, of Syosset, said. "This is just the worst, shocking time right now. I can feel his sense of guilt."

Alec's father, Bill Nelson, of Dix Hills, said he and his wife feel compelled to write Palange and his family a letter, sharing some of their personal coping methods. They asked that the elderly and grief-stricken relative who hit their son not be identified.

Lisa Cavallaro of Carle Place wants desperately to tell Palange the pain will ease. But as it's been just eight months since her daughter, Agatha, died, "I can't tell them it will be better, because it won't," she said. "I don't know what comfort I can be to anybody because I'm still in pain."

The Gulbransens, Nelsons and Cavallaros now share a passion for fighting to make vehicles safer for children and educating the public about SUV dangers.

Gulbransen travels often to Washington, D.C., talking to politicians and committees about the Cameron Gulbransen Kids and Cars Safety Act, named after his son and introduced by Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford). The bill aims to make safety devices, such as video cameras on the backs of SUVs, a requirement for the auto industry.

Hearing about Bobby Palange didn't throw Gulbransen back into the throes of sadness and guilt, as it did when he heard about Agatha Cavallaro. Time has helped, he said, but he also finds strength in pushing to effect policy change.

"We're at the point where we're continuing forward, we are being positive," he said. "It doesn't drag me down. It just reinforces the fact that we need to work harder."

The Nelsons are planning a 4-mile race in April to remember Alec and raise funds for various support agencies, including Kids And Cars, a national nonprofit group that tracks non-traffic-related accidents involving children.

Janette Fennell, founder of the Kansas-based group, said there have been nine back-over deaths across the country so far this year. But because there are no government agencies devoted to tracking such deaths, Fennell said, it's possible the number is higher.

Lisa Cavallaro said she wants to see cameras become standard on all SUVs. "I think it should be a law and not just an optional thing," she said.

The Nelsons, Gulbransens and Lisa Cavallaro met for the first time in November during a charity event for Kids And Cars in Upper Brookville that raised about $60,000. They say meeting each other helped see they are not alone in their grief. On Sunday, the Gulbransens and the Nelsons had lunch.

"We clicked right away," Lisa Cavallaro said of meeting the other families. She and Adriann Nelson were both expecting new babies -- a sign, they say, that shows them there is reason to move on, while keeping the memories of Agatha and Alec alive. Cavallaro is due next month and Nelson could give birth any day.

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