Cover Story
Fighting for Change
Leading the charge
Tragedies turn widows into champions for changes in the trucking industry

By Clarissa Kell-Holland, staff writer

Sarah VanWasshnova and Hope Rivenburg admit they didn’t set out to become safety advocates for the trucking industry. But when trucking tragedies took their husbands, both women channeled their grief into action.

While nothing can replace their losses, Sarah and Hope have become champions for changes in the trucking industry, advocating for tougher crashworthiness standards in heavy trucks and for critical truck parking across the country on behalf of approximately

3.5 million truck drivers.

They have gained support of U.S. lawmakers after sharing their heartbreaking stories in an effort to save other families from experiencing the loss of a loved one.

Provisions to study crashworthiness and truck parking were both included in the

U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee’s highway bill that was released on Jan. 31.

Righting the wrongs

On Feb. 1, Sarah VanWasshnova was checking her voicemail during her lunch hour when she received the news that the House version of the highway bill calls for provisions to study crashworthiness standards in truck cabs.

“My sixth period class was coming in, and they were filtering in as I was still listening to the message,” she told Land Line. “I just started crying, not hysterical, but they could see that I looked happy and the tears were flowing.”

The Port Orange, FL, high school English teacher lost her husband, Carl, in a truck wreck more than two years ago. 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 from blunt force trauma after striking 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,” she said.

At the time of the wreck, Carl had more than 30 years of trucking experience as both an owner-operator and company driver. Photos of the crash show that the cab of Carl’s red 2005 Freightliner Columbia collapsed around the passenger compartment.

Just months after Carl’s death, she started a letter-writing campaign seeking tougher crashworthiness standards for heavy trucks after finding out that air bags, which are mandatory in passenger vehicles, are not required in heavy truck cabs. One of her letters reached OOIDA headquarters because Carl, a 30-year trucking veteran, was an OOIDA member.

Nearly a year ago, Sarah and her son, Jeff, met with U.S. lawmakers and their staff to share Carl’s story and the importance of tougher crashworthiness standards for heavy trucks. Laura O’Neill, OOIDA’s director of government affairs, also attended those meetings.

Sarah said she is determined to see this through as a way to honor her husband’s memory and show her students that “one person can put forth a cause and make a difference.”

“I see these commercials for passenger vehicles that come equipped with 10 airbags, when most commercial vehicles don’t have even one airbag,” Sarah said. “I want everyone to know that truck drivers’ lives are just as important as the lives of those in passenger vehicles.”

Glimmer of Hope

On the same day that Hope Rivenburg received the tragic news that her aunt, Cassandra “Sandy” Hardendorf, had lost her battle with leukemia, she received a phone call informing her that truck parking provisions were in the House’s four-year surface transportation bill.

“This news is more important than anybody knows right now,” Hope told Land Line.

Hope credits Sandy Hardendorf with writing the initial Jason’s Law petition just days after Jason Rivenburg was fatally shot while parked at an abandoned gas station in March 2009. The petition now has nearly 12,000 signatures.

“It’s fitting that I get this news on the day Aunt Sandy passed away,” Hope said. “My grandmother always said that when someone dies, a baby is born. She (Sandy) would be so ecstatic to know that truck parking is included in the highway bill because she started the campaign for Jason’s Law legislation for secure parking for truckers.”

Hope has traveled several times from her home in Fultonham, NY, to Washington, DC, to meet with lawmakers and tell Jason’s story and the importance of secure truck parking. She has also organized several national call-in days for truck drivers and their families to flood lawmakers’ phones about the truck parking shortage in this country.

U.S. Rep. Paul Tonko, D-NY, has introduced two Jason’s Law stand-alone bills in the U.S. House.

U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-NY, has introduced two companion bills in the Senate.

On March 5, 2009, Hope’s husband Jason arrived early with his load of milk at the Food Lion distribution center in Elloree, SC. He was turned away because his appointment time wasn’t until 8 a.m. the following morning. His delivery never took place because he was fatally shot and robbed for $7 after parking at an unlit, abandoned gas station about 12 miles from where he was scheduled to unload the following morning.

A South Carolina jury sentenced Jason’s killer, Willie Pelzer, who was 22 at the time, to life in prison without the possibility of parole in December of 2009.

While there is still a long road ahead, Hope has pledged to keep fighting to raise awareness on behalf of the millions of truck drivers who struggle to find truck parking daily.

“All truck drivers deserve to have a safe place to park,” she said. LL