‘Go get 'em, Snooks’
That's what truck driver Carl Van Wasshnova would be saying to his widow as she takes her fight for airbag requirement to Capitol Hill

By Clarissa Kell-Holland, staff writer

Honoring her husband’s memory is what motivates Sarah Van Wasshnova to continue to push for tougher crashworthiness standards for manufacturers of heavy trucks.

In mid-March, she took her fight to Capitol Hill, where she met with some U.S. lawmakers and their staff to share Carl’s story – and the importance of airbags in the cabs of commercial vehicles.

Van Wasshnova, a teacher from Port Orange, FL, told Land Line she is convinced her husband would be alive today if his 2005 Freightliner Columbia daycab had been equipped with an airbag. He was only going approximately 30 mph when he veered across the median to avoid a possible collision in front of him and hit an empty FedEx trailer. He died at the scene.

“NASCAR drivers walk away from collisions at 200 mph even though their vehicles are virtually destroyed. Most of them survive,” she said. “My husband was going 30 miles per hour and hit an empty trailer. His load was intact, but the cab was destroyed and he died.”

She said Carl died from blunt force trauma after hitting the steering column during the crash.

“If there would have been an airbag, maybe it would have protected him by maintaining a space between him and the steering column,” Van Wasshnova said. “He might have been injured but at least he would still be here.”

Some drivers say they are opposed to any additional regulatory burdens being placed on them, which can be costly.

However, OOIDA Regulatory Affairs Director Joe Rajkovacz said “there are even scarier scenarios,” referring to proposed mandates of crash avoidance systems and other technology, which could cost thousands – not hundreds like an airbag.

OOIDA Government Affairs Counsel Laura O’Neill, who attended the meetings with Van Wasshnova and her son, Jeff, said she was impressed by Sarah’s commitment to protecting other truck drivers out on the nation’s highways.

O’Neill said she is “optimistic” that language regarding improving manufacturing standards in the cabs of commercial vehicles may appear in the House and Senate versions of the highway bill, which staffers are currently drafting. 

“Obviously, there are no guarantees this will make it in the highway bill, but I think Sarah impressed some key people who are going to be drafting the bill,” O’Neill said. “We are going to keep our eye on this language and, if it does appear, we will help shepherd this along.”

Van Wasshnova said she’s spoken to many people about what happened to Carl, and they are surprised to learn that the same safety standards don’t apply for both passenger vehicles and commercial vehicles. Airbags, which are mandatory in passenger vehicles, are not required in heavy truck cabs.

“I understand that passenger vehicles don’t stand a chance against a truck, and I can empathize with anyone who has lost someone in a passenger vehicle or a truck accident,” she said. “But I do believe that truck drivers have a right to be protected, too.”

After the crash, Van Wasshnova said she was reading an online news account about Carl’s accident. Scrolling down through the comments, she said she was stunned to read one poster’s comment that “at least he didn’t kill a family and only killed himself.”

“I think the public’s perception is that all truck drivers are demons on the road and are out there trying to mow people down with their big trucks, and that is just wrong,” she said. “Truck drivers, like Carl, are just doing their jobs. I know the focus is on prevention, but when something happens, they should be afforded a safe working environment by having an airbag to protect them.”

As for her efforts to save other truck drivers and their families from experiencing what her family has gone through, Van Wasshnova said she is determined to see this through.

“I know Carl is up there cheering me on, saying ‘Go get ’em, Snooks,’ which was his nickname for me,” she said. “That’s what motivates me to do this to honor his memory.” LL