Robin Abel, who became an advocate for carefully secured loads after her daughter was catastrophically injured in 2004, saw her dream of national legislation move one step forward when President Obama this month signed a transportation bill authorizing a study of the states' best laws and practices.
Anybody who knows Robin Abel knows she’s not going to give up until an unsecured truck load is as unacceptable as a baby bouncing around in a car.
Earlier this month, Abel saw her goal come a step closer when President Obama signed the Transportation Appropriations Bill with a provision requiring the Governmental Accountability Office to recommend federal action after a study of state laws related to the causes of road debris. The provision could ultimately lead to federal law on unsecured loads — at least, that’s Abel’s hope.
“This provision will be critical in understanding how debris from other vehicles is threatening the safety of our highways,” said U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, who is sponsoring the legislative provision. “It will also be key for accident-prevention efforts moving forward.”
In pursuit of her cause, Abel has traveled to Washington, D.C., where’s she’s spoken with federal legislators to lobby for federal law in unsecured loads. Her goal is to see load security given the same kind of priority that went into changing laws and attitudes about seat-belt laws and child-car-seat laws.
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“All she has to do is tell her story, and people listen,” said Abel’s friend, Judy Maleng, the widow of former King County Prosecuting Attorney Norm Maleng. “It was a big surprise and a thrill to see her bill get tacked onto the transportation bill.”
For Abel, a Renton resident, the issue strikes close to home.
Her daughter, Maria Federici, was blinded in 2004 by a piece of furniture that fell from a U-Haul trailer and smashed through her windshield as she drove on Interstate 405.
When Abel learned that her daughter was not eligible for crime victims’ assistance because no laws were broken by the driver’s negligence, she was staggered. The only penalties the driver faced were a traffic citation and a fine.
“We have to change the law,” she told Maleng.
Maleng agreed and helped draft legislation that became House Bill 1478, or “Maria’s Law,” a Washington state law that criminalized the failure to properly secure a load. A person who caused an injury or death by failing to secure a load in the state could be charged with a gross misdemeanor and faced with a year in jail and a $5,000 fine.
The legislation, among the nation’s strictest, was signed into law in 2005. But that wasn’t enough for Abel.
Abel quit her job to take care of Federici, now 32, while the young woman underwent seven excruciating reconstructive surgeries and years of physical therapy. A lawsuit was filed against U-Haul and the man driving the trailer. A civil jury, which found that Federici had no fault in the incident, awarded her a $15.5 million judgment.
The judgment was appealed, but Federici later settled for a lesser, undisclosed amount.
In the years since the accident, Abel has heard from the families of dozens of other victims of roadside debris. She’s learned that debris from unsecured loads is estimated to be responsible for as many as 360 deaths per year.
Despite some improvements caused by the new state law and the publicity it caused, there are still offenders out there, said Judy Maleng. “If you could see the statistics on what is being picked up by the roadside crews, it would astound you: big tires, big spools, pieces of wood. Things you can’t imagine people could lose.”
Abel has been tireless and completely focused, said Maleng.
Abel says her message is simple: “Secure your load as if everyone you loved were in a car behind you.”
Christine Clarridge: 206-464-8983 or firstname.lastname@example.org