Before Chad Petersen ever drives his vehicle, he approaches from the passenger side and walks behind the car or truck to get into the driver’s side door. This somewhat circuitous route takes only a few seconds and is now a regular part of his routine — a change in his behavior that was born out of tragedy.
On Oct. 15, 2014, Chad and his wife, Jennifer, were preparing to leave town for a Disneyland vacation with their kids. Chad needed to go to work for a few hours in the morning before leaving on the trip. Their near-3-year-old daughter, Natalie, had been riding her bike in the driveway, but both Chad and Jennifer thought she had parked her bike and gone inside, so Jennifer went in to tend to her as Chad got into his truck and backed out of the driveway. When they heard Natalie scream, they both knew immediately she was not inside, but instead had been playing directly behind the truck when she was hit and killed.
It’s been nearly a decade since the accident and both Chad and Jennifer still struggle to speak through the emotions as they recall the terrible moment. However, in the last 10 years they have become actively involved in raising awareness for children’s safety, including engaging with Intermountain Primary Children’s Hospital’s Spot the Tot program, as a way to honor Natalie’s memory.
“The more you talk about it, the easier it becomes to talk about it, and it keeps her name being spoken,” Chad said.
“Our situation is hard in so many ways that I didn’t even expect,” Jennifer said. “But having a platform like Spot the Tot has helped us feel like there is a reason we have experienced this, a way to help other people.”
Each year Primary Children’s Hospital urges motorists to take the steps necessary to “Spot the Tot” before driving, to ensure the safety of children everywhere.
“While backovers and frontovers may seem rare, they happen regularly and can result in devastating injuries or death,” said Michelle Jamison, community health program manager at Intermountain Primary Children’s Hospital.
Nationwide, more than 1,500 children have died in such accidents between 1990 and 2021, according to KidsandCars.org, a number that is likely undercounted because there is no official state data collection system.
“These accidents can happen to anyone,” Jamison said. “They’re also preventable by taking a few extra seconds to practice safety before getting into the vehicle.”
Even though Chad and Jennifer both acknowledge their tragedy was a complete accident, Jennifer said there are always things people can do to increase the safety of kids. For example, even relying on technology like a vehicle’s backup cameras may not be enough.
“Chad’s truck had backup cameras and backup sensors, but Natalie was in a spot that was just too close to the bumper for anything to register,” Jennifer said.
As Chad and Jennifer have wrestled through the last 10 years, they are grateful they have made the choice to choose each other, and their family, over and over throughout the healing process.
“Things were hard. There were a lot of times when it did almost end our marriage,” Chad said. “There was distance and time to grow back together, but we choose each other every day.”
“I think now we’re in a better spot than we’ve been our whole married life,” Jennifer said, and Chad agreed.
Having projects like Spot the Tot and others have given the couple a productive place to put some of their energy and grief and has given them something to share with each other and their children that they hope will help many others.
“Spot the Tot is a great way to spread the word on safety,” Chad said. “It starts with looking around as you get in the car, but it doesn’t stop with that. The idea is to be safe in all aspects of your life. Be proactive. Put down your phone in the car or if your kids are in the pool. Some people have to learn through experience, but hopefully more people don’t have to pay the same price we did.”
For more information on child safety, or to get involved with Spot the Tot, check out www.primarychildrens.org/safety
This Live Wellcolumn represents collaboration between healthcare professionals from the medical staffs of our not-for-profit Intermountain Health hospitals and The Spectrum & Daily News.