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County pushes for tougher road debris injury law

SNOQUALMIE VALLEY - The impact of the tragedy that nearly killed Maria Federici - and changed her life forever - has been wide-ranging among the many people who knew her and the many thousands who've come to know of her.

For some, what haunted them was the random nature of how the Renton woman was blinded, deformed and brain-damaged by a stray piece of particleboard that fell off a trailer and through her windshield on Interstate 405. For others it was the tragedy of a woman so young and beautiful and full of life, whose life was forever changed.

For some of the more outraged followers of Federici's difficult year, it was a story of irresponsibility. How could the man who allowed this to happen get off with a traffic ticket?

The answer, prosecutors say, is written in state law.

James Hefley, 29, of Newcastle, appeared in King County District Court in Bellevue last week to ask a judge to reduce the penalties he faced if found guilty of four driving violations: driving without a license, driving without insurance, failing to secure his load and failing to retrieve what fell off his trailer.

Judge Janet Garrow didn't show him much sympathy. She found him guilty of each infraction and ordered him to pay $834.50 in fines, according to court documents.

Seated in the courtroom was Maria Federici's mother, Robin Abel.

"I just thought it was important that my daughter be represented," she said.

In the back of her mind, Abel said, she'd hoped Hefley would reveal that he felt some of the same pain that she and her daughter have endured. But she didn't think that would really happen, she said, and she isn't sure she'd believe him, anyway.

"I, from the beginning, have hoped he would accept some responsibility," Abel said, "but I don't think that will ever happen. ... Attending that hearing was a very hard thing to do."

Hefley could not be reached for comment.

Washington state law says Hefley doesn't have to accept responsibility for what happened to Maria Federici.

After Federici was nearly killed Feb. 22 by the 60-pound board, state troopers searched for weeks to find the person hauling the trailer from which it had fallen. Finally, with a fingerprint from the board and a paper trail from the rented trailer, troopers found Hefley and arrested him. He was held on $5,000 bail.

King County prosecutors tried to find a way to charge him with felony hit-and-run and misdemeanor reckless endangerment but the evidence just wasn't there, said prosecutor's spokesman Dan Donohoe.

They couldn't prove Hefley knew that he'd lost part of his load, only that he didn't tie it down properly.

"We looked at the case thoroughly to look at all the possibilities, and this is the only thing that we could file," Donohoe said, referring to the traffic citations.

The law is the law, say Abel and her cadre of supporters, but it can be changed.

That's exactly what they intend to do. Abel and her crew have met with state legislators about strengthening penalties for people who cause injuries with improperly secured loads on their vehicles.

With support from the King County Prosecutor's Office, the idea rapidly gained support this year, especially after at least two more frightening cases of road debris mishaps occurred in Western Washington.

In one case, an insulation knife fell off a truck and ended up sticking out of the grill of a car.

In another, more serious case, Babe Watson, 55, of North Bend was nearly killed in August when a 7-pound metal bar smashed through her windshield as she was driving on Highway 202. After a month in intensive care and multiple surgeries, Watson was expected to make a full recovery.

Abel said her efforts in pushing for the new law might soon show real progress, but she was tight-lipped about the details because she didn't want to spoil any of the ongoing negotiations.

One proposal would amend the current statute into three parts and call for appropriate penalties based on the level of the crime. Such a new law would make it a gross misdemeanor for drivers who fail to secure loads that cause bodily injury.

If the bill passes, anyone injured by an object from an unsecured load would qualify for assistance from the Crime Victims Compensation program.

Maria Federici doesn't qualify for assistance from the program because the at-fault driver couldn't be charged with a crime.

While Abel is arguing her case in Olympia, her daughter is taking things one day at a time, learning how to function without sight.

Lately she has been plagued by severe headaches and dizziness, but that hasn't stopped her from working out each morning with a personal trainer.

She's also getting rather handy with her new voice-activated computer donated by some of her supporters.

On Thursday, she undergoes yet another in a long series of surgeries.

This one has been long coming, Abel said, because it will further repair Federici's nose and, hopefully, ease her headaches.

More surgeries are still to come. She faces at least three operations, including two for each of her eyes and another on her nose.

"It's a day-by-day process of getting better," Abel said. "She's starting to get through the grieving process. A little anger is cropping up."

More than anything, though, Abel and her family are thankful for the outpouring of support from the community.

From benefits at Club Medusa in Seattle, where Federici tended bar, to a concert last month by the Kings of Swing, fund raisers and donations have helped Federici and her family afford many of the expenses not fully covered by insurance, including her trainer and physical therapy.

"I'm very thankful," Abel said. "Maria just loves it when people come up to her on the street and ask how she's doing."

Donations may be made to the Maria Federici Trust at any Wells Fargo Bank branch for those who would like to help. For information about Federici, go to www.mariasmiracle.com.

Noel Brady may be reached at noel.brady@kingcountyjournal.com or (425) 453-4252.

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