‘He shouldn't have died’
Widow pushes for tougher safety standards for commercial vehicles

By Clarissa Kell-Holland
staff writer


Sarah VanWasshnova admits she isn’t quite sure what happened in those final moments leading up to her husband’s fatal truck crash nearly a year ago. However, she is certain of one thing: If the truck cab had been as crashworthy as cars are required to be, Carl VanWasshnova might be alive today.

On Nov. 13, 2009, Carl, an OOIDA member from Port Orange, FL, was approaching the E-ZPass lane on the Florida Turnpike in Orange County, when video shows his truck veering across the median and then hitting the first of two empty trailers being pulled by a FedEx truck headed in the opposite direction. Neither Carl nor the FedEx truck were going more than 30 mph.

The Florida Highway Patrol’s report states that neither day cab was equipped with an airbag. The other driver was not injured in the crash. Carl died at the scene. At the time of the wreck, Carl had more than 30 years of trucking experience as both an owner-operator and company driver, including the last 16 years at Averitt Express, based out of Tennessee.

A video specialist hired by Sarah after the wreck was able to “slow down the camera frames.”

The slowed video shows a car traveling through the E-ZPass lane almost coming to a stop. That apparently caused the tractor-trailer following it to slow as well. The video then shows Carl’s truck swerve toward the median.

Sarah believes it’s clear he was avoiding the tractor-trailer in front of him.

Photos of the crash show that the cab of Carl’s red 2005 Freightliner Columbia collapsed around the passenger compartment.

According to the coroner’s report, Carl died of blunt-force trauma, including a fractured cervical vertebrae, broken ribs and a punctured liver. In the FHP’s report, the investigator at the scene confirmed that Carl was wearing his seatbelt at the time of the collision.

Carl was charged with careless driving. That is now the only blemish on Carl’s once perfect driving record, which spans more than 30 years.

That charge led Sarah to hire the video specialist. She has offered a copy of the footage to investigators, but so far they have refused to re-examine the video recording. She’s frustrated that while investigators interviewed two cars immediately behind Carl, they did not talk to the semi and the car that were in front of him.

“Carl wasn’t going that fast, and it wasn’t a head-on collision – he hit an empty trailer – but he still died,” Sarah told Land Line. “He may have been severely injured because the cab just collapsed around him; he might have been paralyzed. But I believe he would have lived and he would still be here with me today if there had been an air bag.”

Sarah is convinced that if Carl’s truck had been more crashworthy, he might have lived. She said her brother, Bill Bishop, a retired lieutenant with the Miami Police Department, who went to the impound lot to view Carl’s truck, agrees.

A widow’s fight
Processing the details of Carl’s death has been shocking for Sarah. She was surprised to learn that air bags or head rests aren’t mandatory on Class 7 or Class 8 trucks the way they are on passenger vehicles. She said until this happened to her family she and others she talked to about this just thought the “same rules” applied to four-wheelers and heavy trucks.

She said the “what ifs” have haunted her since she received the news about the crash. “What if his tractor had been equipped with an air bag?” “What if there had been a head rest in his cab?”

Although she knows it’s too late to help Carl, she has made it her “mission” to push for tougher safety standards to protect truck drivers.

“I am committed to doing something to honor my husband’s memory,” Sarah said. “Carl drove millions of miles with no accidents. He knew his responsibilities as a driver, and he didn’t take them lightly. He would have wanted me to try to help save the lives of other drivers and spare their families from going through the pain our family is going through. That’s just the kind of man he was.”

In the months since Carl’s death, Sarah has spent countless hours researching minimum safety standards for Class 7 and 8 trucks. Her goal is that drivers’ safety will be considered in the construction of truck cabs, which could lead to fewer fatalities and give more drivers like Carl a chance at survival.   

“What I have found is that many government agencies seem to be very concerned about preventing crashes, but not as concerned about protecting the drivers when there is a crash, which I think is extremely sad,” she said.

Crashworthiness standards
According to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, crashworthiness regulations have been issued for commercial vehicles weighing more than 10,000 pounds. The regs deal with glazing materials, door locks and door retention components, seating systems, seat belts, child restraint systems and rear impact guards. However, NHTSA currently has no regulations for occupant protection, rear impact, head restraints and roof crush resistance for Class 7 and 8 trucks, just for cars and light trucks.

Sarah, who teaches high school English, has now taken her fight to Washington, DC, contacting her state and federal lawmakers and government agencies that oversee the trucking industry.

She has written letters to NHTSA, the National Transportation Safety Board, and the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration about the need for tougher safety standards for heavy trucks. She also contacted OOIDA for assistance in her fight.

In August, Sarah; OOIDA Director of Regulatory Affairs Joe Rajkovacz; Director of Legislative Affairs Mike Joyce; and a representative from the American Trucking Associations participated in a conference call with an aide for U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-FL. The group discussed what happened to Carl and the need for tougher safety standards – for example, making it mandatory that air bags be installed in commercial vehicles.

Sarah is also urging the trucking community and their families to contact their U.S. lawmakers to make them aware that safety measures, which are already mandatory for manufacturers of passenger vehicles, should apply to commercial vehicle manufacturers as well.

“We need to send a message that truck drivers’ lives are important, too. We couldn’t survive a day without the products they deliver, but we don’t provide them with a $600 air bag that could possibly save their lives,” she said.

In September, Carl and Sarah would have been married for 13 years. They had four children. Sarah said his loss will be felt the most when he isn’t there at her daughter Jill’s wedding. Originally, he was supposed to have danced with Jill to the song, “I Loved Her First.” Now, Sarah said they plan to show photos of Carl and Jill together while the song plays.

“I never thought about there not being air bags in trucks until Carl died,” Sarah said. “He always took pride in his work and maybe he would still be here if there had been one. He was a good, good man and I miss him.” LL