Many of us have those annual calendar dates that put lumps in our throats and pits in our stomachs. That date for Jimmy Deloach Jr. and his family is April, 22nd. Six years ago, a normal spring day during a business trip became the worst day of his life.
“I was in Kansas working with my brother and I got a call from my younger daughter, Annie” DeLoach said on the latest WSB Traffic Podcast. Annie was a UGA student and his older daughter, Abbie, was in nursing school at Georgia Southern. Annie was crying. “I couldn’t understand what the problem was. And she said, ‘Dad - Abbie had been killed in an accident.” DeLoach’s fatherly instincts kicked in, as he tried to calm Annie down and then make some calls to find out what was happening. He held onto hope that maybe Annie had the wrong information - but she did not.
“I tried to reach Abbie on the phone three times and that’s when I knew something was not right, because she always picked up. And so I took about an hour trying to call everyone in Georgia to find out what happened. And while I was on the phone, I got a call from Georgia State Patrol.”
GSP couldn’t tell DeLoach much, but they told him he needed to come home immediately from his business trip, which essentially confirmed DeLoach’s worst fears.
DeLoach and his brother rushed to the airport and a couple saw him crying. They compassionately and generously gave the grieving brothers their tickets on the flight so they could get back to Georgia. They flew in the middle of a long, dark night. “We traveled back and met my wife and my daughter and went to the hospital and it’s just tough having to see your daughter inside the operating room and she’s lifeless.”
April begins Distracted Driving Awareness Month and that message unfortunately didn’t stick with a truck driver in South Georgia this April of 2015 morning.
“It was 5:30 in the morning. There were a total of seven in the car. Out of the seven, five were killed in the accident, two survived. And they were on their last clinical rotation, going to the city of Savannah. It should have been a very joyous day to progress to the next step of completing their degree. But unfortunately, a distracted driver plowed into the back of them at 70 mph without applying any brakes. And it was just devastation and everything was just destroyed.”
DeLoach doesn’t flee from the problem or bury the grief. He returns to that pit in his soul constantly, never forgetting the pain, and hoping the lessons learned from his tragedy will save others.
“I go by that site about every day driving home,” DeLoach, said with a quiver in his voice. Then he recalled the results of the crash investigation, which brought light to the grievous errors the distracted tractor trailer driver made on I-16, as he unknowingly approached a big backup. “There was a minute of him going 70 miles per hour and not having his attention ahead of him. He did not apply his brakes and 70 miles per hour with an 80,000 pound truck - there’s going to be devastation. The impact sent my daughter’s car off into the ditch and the other one was just devastated and burned up. It was just total darkness and black death.”
DeLoach and his family and friends began a hands-free drive as part of the founding of the Abbie DeLoach Foundation, one year after Abbie and the other students’ horrific crash. They began a social media campaign using the hashtag “#HandsFreeForAbbie” to remind people to drive with more alertness. “It started snowballing and people started picking up on it,” DeLoach said. Emily Clark, Abbie DeLoach’s classmate, also died in that car and her family worked very hard with Marietta Rep. John Carson to bolster Georgia’s distracted driving laws.
Lawmakers couldn’t help but associate faces with the deadly behavior and that grisly scene on I-16: Abbie DeLoach, Emily Clark, Morgan Bass, Catherine Pittman, and Caitlyn Baggett, all GSU juniors.
By July 1st, 2018, elected officials at the Gold Dome had amended Georgia’s anti-texting-behind-the-wheel law to make most instances of holding a phone while driving illegal. The DeLoach family, along with family members of the other four students killed in that terrible wreck were on-hand for Governor Nathan Deal’s signing ceremony.
The Abbie DeLoach Foundation not only advocates against distracted driving, but also raises money for college students at Georgia Southern, Savannah State, and University of Georgia. The foundation has given nearly a million dollars to nursing students, student athletes, and overseas missions, causes that DeLoach said are close to his family’s heart and were dear to Abbie.
The DeLoach family turned the worst day of their life into a cause. They turned their heartbreak into charity. They turned grief into memories. God used their darkness to create light. And we all can help. We can donate to the Abbie DeLoach Foundation and spread the word with “#HandsFreeForAbbie” on social media. But before all of that, we can mount those phones or put them down when we’re driving. We’ve gotten softer since the state enacted the Hands-Free Georgia Act three years ago.
So now is the time for a recalibration; we have seen the cost to those five families six years ago and many times since. Let’s honor all of them and drive better.
Doug Turnbull, the PM drive Skycopter anchor for Triple Team Traffic on 95.5 WSB, is the Gridlock Guy. He also hosts a traffic podcast with Smilin’ Mark McKay on wsbradio.com. Contact him at Doug.Turnbull@cmg.com.