Mother of UW Comm grad makes ‘Secure Your Load’ her life mission

Photos courtesy Robin Abel

Photos courtesy Robin Abel

Securely, meaning safely, and fasten, defined as to tie down or restrain, have become the two words that encompasses Robin Abel’s life work. Abel’s Secure Your Load campaign has changed state law and received national attention.

Abel received the phone call that no mother wants to get one night in 2004, when her daughter Maria Federici was critically injured. Federici, who graduated from the UW with a B.A. in Speech Communication in 2003 and was working toward a master’s, was driving home from work on Interstate 405 when a 40 pound piece of loose furniture came through Federici’s windshield, hitting her in the face with 2,000 pounds of impact.

“It severed both carotid arteries, so she bled out and was without oxygen and no blood supply for an extended period of time,” Abel said. “I said goodbye to her that night. They called me in the morning and said come back she’s still alive.”

Federici lost her eyesight and underwent seven reconstructive surgeries. Seeing the struggles that ensued afterward is what drives Abel forward. Abel quit her job to care for her daughter for five years after the accident, and continues to devote her life to this cause in order to save others from experiencing the same pain.

“I think about it and had Maria not lived, maybe I wouldn’t have done all this,” Abel said, “but I’ve watched her so bravely go through it all.”

Abel said her foremost triumph in the nine and a half years since the accident has been allowing her daughter to have an independent life.

“As a parent you do anything you can to clean up the mess,” Abel said. “It’s our job; it’s innate in who we are. So I would say my biggest accomplishment is helping my daughter get through this and to give her the life that she has now.”

And second to that would be changing the law.

SECURE YOUR LOAD

The driver of the U-Haul that carried the loose load in front of Federici’s Jeep walked away from the accident with only a littering ticket (and a couple fines for not having a valid license or insurance). Abel quickly contacted Norm Maleng, then the King County Prosecutor, who informed her that her daughter was not eligible for crime victims’ assistance.

“I was concerned how she was going to survive the rest of her life,” Abel said, “and the prosecutor told me what happened to my daughter wasn’t a crime in the eyes of the law and therefore she couldn’t be a victim. I was stunned.”

And that’s all she needed to hear.

“It was instantaneous within me that I realized that here was my chance to make a difference for others and I said to him right at that moment that we need to change the law for others because this can’t happen,” Abel said.

With the help of Maleng, Abel went to work to pass House Bill 1478, or “Maria’s Law,” to criminalize the failure to properly secure a load in Washington State. A driver who caused injury or death due to the lack of load securement can now face a year in jail and a $5,000 fine.

A year later Abel heard rumors that the bill had not been properly cross referenced to the Crime Victims Compensation Act. Successfully adding two words, she made victims of unsecure loads eligible for crime victim compensation. The King County Solid Waste Division also now implements a $25 (up from just a couple of dollars, with zero tolerance) fee for arriving at County transfer facilities or the landfill with an unsecure load.

When she wasn’t able to get the attention of Senator Patty Murray, she decided to write the head boss – the President of the United States.

“I copied Governor Gregoire who had been great to me and within 48 hours I had a meeting,” Abel said. “Going to Washington D.C. in person is what really kick-started it for me.”

The extent of President Obama’s involvement is unclear, but he did sign off on the Transportation Appropriations Bill, which required the General Accountability Office to conduct a study that found over 51,000 incidents per year are caused by unsecure loads and road debris, resulting in 440 deaths and about 10,000 injuries.

Without a category on a ticket for road debris or unsecure loads, it is difficult to gage accidents, injuries, and deaths caused by unsecure loads, but Abel is working with the National Highway Traffic Administration (NHTSA) to add this classification. She also has been working with the Department of Licensing for years to get her facts added to their guide, but the information distribution is now up to privately owned driving schools.

“Truthfully, the key is education,” Abel said. “I know innately people care enough; they just don’t get the fact that [an accident] takes one split second.”

The Department of Ecology joined the cause, bringing to the forefront that up to 40 percent of litter is caused by unsecure loads, resulting in billions of spent government dollars. More recently Abel has tried to get all the dirt, sand, and gravel trucks covered, but has been unsuccessful so far.

WHAT’S NEXT?

secureYourLoadAbel has prepared a six-year plan to be presented when the National Transportation Bill comes out in September 2014 that sets aside funds that NHTSA would monitor, giving incentives to states to educate citizens.

“I truly believe in my heart that it will get done,” Abel said. “There’s no one that I meet that doesn’t say, ‘I saw an unsecure load today and I thought of you and Maria and I drove around it, or changed lanes, or dropped back.’ How powerful is that? It’s not about being famous; it’s about making a difference.”

Abel continues to talk to hundreds of truck companies and local businesses about load securement, handing out the book she wrote and self-published, and a bumper sticker she designed.

“To reach them emotionally I say, ‘Secure your load as if everyone you love is driving in the vehicle behind you,’” Abel said. “It makes you think differently.”

She has also been asked for the third year in a row to speak at the UW School of Law orientation where they study Federici’s case and the laws that Abel has changed. Although she gets terribly nervous every year, she said it is one of her best audiences.

“As the assistant dean told me, ‘it’s one thing to do a civil lawsuit like you guys did, but it’s another thing to change it so that it helps others,’” Abel said. “That’s what she wants students to see, and I’m the kid with the high school degree.”

Abel receives phone calls from victims, or parents of victims, who have suffered from the same pain Federici endured. Although that inspires her to keep pushing forward, sometimes it’s those she doesn’t know who have more of an impact.

“I will never know the names of the people’s lives I’ve saved,” Abel said, “but the fact that I don’t know their name means that they’re still alive. That’s good because when I know their name, they’re either injured or dead. I just know in my heart that each thing I do saves someone’s life.”