RICHMOND, Va. -- Thursday marked the first-ever national "Do Not Disturb While Driving Day" when driving safety advocates encouraged drivers to turn on the "do not disturb" function on their phones when behind the wheel.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that nine people die each day in the United States in crashes involving a distracted drivers.
Among those in Virginia who advocated for this on Thursday was Drive Smart Virginia, a non-profit aimed at improving road safety in the Commonwealth, and two people tied together by one crash over three years ago that has brought them together to spread the same message.
She "dedicated her life to helping other people"
For Meredith Spies, February 13, 2019, is a day she remembers "in kind of a haze" as it was the day that her mother, Karen Giles, was killed when her car was hit by a dump truck in the 17200 block of Genito Rd. The driver of the truck was texting at the time of the crash.
"I remember being a new mom all over again and then dealing with the loss of my mom, it was very unexpected. We didn't think that we were going to be burying my mom while we still had small kids around. Those were her grandbabies. We expected her to be around to see her grandchildren grow," said Spies, who added her fourth child was born after the crash. "We know, in Heaven, she's watching over him. But it's sad to see our children grow up and know that she's not a part of the big life events that happen. She was 'Grandmama.'"
Spies spoke with CBS 6 at the site of the crash, her first visit there since it happened. She said a white cross had been erected on a tree in Giles' memory by some of her friends.
"Even driving here was emotional and scary. Seeing other cars oncoming and knowing that that's what she saw in her last moments, you know, a car coming and that was it. So, it's scary to be in the same place," said Giles.
Spies said she keeps her memory alive by telling her kids about Giles.
"We tell her that grandmama dedicated her life to helping other people as a firefighter and an EMT. We tell them that she taught others her trade, so she could help impact the world in a positive way," said Spies, who added she also is honest about how Giles died. "We tell our children that there is a man who was texting and driving a dump truck and he wasn't paying attention to the road. So, we tell them that they're ever in a car with somebody who's not paying attention, who picks up their phone to tell them 'That's how my grandmama died, you need to put your phone down.'"
Spies is now an advocate against distracted driving and took part in the push to make holding your phone while driving illegal in Virginia.
"I think that's a way of healing," said Spies, who added friends relay stories of not picking up the phone while driving because of her story. "[They'll] say, 'I was driving the other day and I heard my phone go off and I wanted to answer it.' They wanted to pick up their phone. But, they reached out to say, 'I thought of you and I thought about your mom and I didn't do it.'"
"I never saw Karen Giles coming"
Spies is not alone in her mission to prevent future distracted driving crashes, as the driver of the dump truck, Samuel Allebaugh, has made it his as well.
"I can't change what happened. I can only try to help someone else," said Allebaugh.
Allebaugh said the day in question was like a regular work day for him and he was headed back to the shop.
"I was texting on my phone while driving and I thought I had a pretty good system of doing that. But, I just glanced down, just to make sure that I typed it right and that's when the truck went off the road," recounted Allebaugh. "And when I tried to correct it threw the truck sideways…I never saw Karen Giles coming. I didn't even know anybody else was on the road until I hit her."
Allebaugh said he does not think about the crash every day, but certain events will trigger a reaction.
"I do have some anxiety issues that I maybe didn't have before or didn't recognize. When things happen abruptly, anything really, it kind of sends me back there. I have that same, 'Oh, my God.', you know, when that impact happened, it was the worst sound. For the first year, I had nightmares all the time and I would hear that noise."
Some of those nightmares happened in prison when Allebaugh was serving his sentence after he pled guilty. But, during that same time, he also connected with Spies and found forgiveness.
"God has forgiven me and Meredith and her family have forgiven me. I've even, finally, have forgiven myself," said Allebaugh. "Meredith forgiving me and her family just, kind of, gave it some purpose as, 'Okay, why am I still alive?'
Allebaugh said he now tries to share his story and convince others not to make the same mistake.
"I'm trying to find a positive in any way possible. I mean, good gosh, if something good can come out of something so terrible, then it's worth whatever effort I have," said Allebaugh, who added that not only could you end up taking someone else's life, but it would be a sense of guilt you have to carry around the rest of your life. "The worst thing about the accident, in a way other than Mrs. Giles losing her life, was I got to leave the accident. That sucked for me. That was one of the hardest things to deal with, you know, is that I got to leave. I was there for quite a few hours, of course, and answered questions and things. But, eventually, I went home and had to live with it."
"The silver lining to come out of something so horrible"
For Spies, the relationship she and Allebaugh have formed since the crash has been one of the "biggest blessings".
"The silver lining to come out of something so horrible," she said. "We started talking just about our experiences from both sides of the situation. He gave me a huge gift in accepting his responsibility for his actions and asking for my forgiveness and that's closure that so many of the others that I've met who are in the same situation haven't gotten."
"We've been able to build on that and I've completely forgiven him and we've been able to grow together as followers in Christ and also people who have shared this horrible experience. So, we're working together now to try and educate others to put their phones down when they drive," Spies added. "My story coming from someone who lost someone is only part of it, right? His story saying, 'I made this mistake, don't be like me.' is so powerful."
And as the first "Do Not Disturb Day" takes place, these two people -- brought together because of a single text -- have the same message.
"When you're driving, just drive. It's a major responsibility that we've taken for granted," said Allebaugh. "Driving is exactly what everybody needs to be doing when they're behind the wheel. For sure."
"My message is to don't answer it, put the phone down, put it away. The Do Not Disturb is an amazing function that most phones have. Even vehicles have that a bit of ability to turn off," said Spies.