We’ve all been there – the truck or trailer in front of us looks like it’s about to lose its load all over the roadway. We switch lanes, shake our heads at the potential safety hazard and move along. But Maria Federici never had that chance. Close to midnight on Feb. 22, 2004, a piece of furniture flew off of a U-Haul trailer in front of her and crashed through her windshield, striking her face. The injury left her blind, without the ability to smell or taste and facing years of reconstructive surgeries and physical therapy.
The driver was issued a traffic citation and nothing more. Because failing to secure a load wasn’t breaking the law, Federici was not officially a victim and therefore not eligible for crime victims’ assistance. Thus began the crusade of Federici’s mother, Robin Abel, to change the law and raise awareness of the problem of unsecured loads.
As a result of Abel’s efforts, under Washington state’s “Maria’s Law,” a person who caused an injury or death by failing to secure a load could be charged with a gross misdemeanor, face a year in jail and a $5,000 fine. And the victim is eligible for the state's Crime Victims Compensation Program. Concurrently, a lawsuit was filed against U-Haul and the driver, and a civil jury awarded Federici a multi-million dollar judgment.
Abel hasn’t stopped there. She successfully pushed to get funding for a national study on unsecured loads. The outcome was a report released late last year that was commissioned by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) with data from NHTSA.
The study found that about 440 deaths in 2010 could be attributed to roadway debris. The number could be greater, but proper reporting is an issue. Every state has a statute regarding unsecured loads. Though most exempt commercial activities, nine states have statutes that apply to all vehicles. Fines range from $10 to $5,000, while 15 states add the possibility of imprisonment.
Abel is also looking to testify in front of the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee to gain support for national legislation and for state bills to be modeled after Maria’s Law.
Abel has spearheaded awareness campaigns through the Washington State Patrol, among other organizations. The efforts have worked: From 2005 to 2010, total reported incidents in Washington state regarding unsecured loads that resulted in an injury or death have dropped from 432 to 287, or 34%.
Most awareness campaigns and legislative efforts concentrate on non-commercial loads. For commercial vehicles under the jurisdiction of the Department of Transportation (DOT), the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) already has strict guidelines regarding load securement.
“Most commercial drivers fully embrace their responsibilities and are in tune with the laws set by Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards,” says Captain Rob Huss of the Washington State Patrol.
Legislation of a commercial nature is generally directed at load securement for dirt, sand, rocks and gravel, specifically whether those loads should be required to be covered or not. One such bill is pending in Washington state. Huss hasn’t encountered significant pushback from those targeted industries. “It’s in their best interests to conduct their businesses safely and professionally,” he says. “They don’t want problems or liability associated with the work they want to do.”
A gray area arises, however, regarding the many fleets operating locally that don’t fall under DOT rules and may not have gotten the proper education. Huss agrees, and has seen it all – including the utility trailer that lost wood and metal roofing material onto the highway and windshield of his patrol car.
“It’s those types that you need to reach, too,” he says. “It is just as important to give them their due attention as anyone else.”
For small fleet managers that need more ammo to reinforce load securement with their drivers, consider:
- A 20-pound object traveling at 55 mph hits with the force of 1,000 pounds at the time of impact. “You literally have weapons in your vehicle when aerodynamics takes over,” Abel says.
- Maria Federici’s initial prognosis was terminal, and her mother had carried out her daughter’s directive to donate her organs. Instead of pulling the plug, the doctors kept her on life support to keep the organs functioning. The next day Federici miraculously pulled through. Robin Abel (425-430-8204) would consider speaking about her daughter’s incredible story and her legislative and educational efforts.
- Stay tuned for an article in the May/June issue of Business Fleet Magazine on how to properly secure your load (you can click here to get email notifications when our digital magazine issues come out).
- This video is a good visual wakeup call to show what can happen with road debris. I’m warning you, it will make you jump.
Indeed, while fines sting and a civil judgment could sink a company, “The key thing is education, because no one sets out to harm people, they just don’t think about it,” Abel says.
Huss adds, “Someone who lost debris which struck and hurt or killed someone weighs much heavier than any potential fine that can be received. Securing a load properly is a small request to ensure the overall safety of everyone else.”