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Hastings man uses personal story to raise awareness about drunk driving dangers

This holiday season, Hastings resident Neville Amondson is hoping that drivers will make a decision to not drink and drive.

"I don't want people to go through what I had to go through over the holidays," he said.

On Wednesday morning, he spoke with students in Hastings High School's driver education classes about his own experiences with drunk driving. His story began in about 1980 in Wisconsin, when he was in his early 20s. He had gotten drunk at a party, got in his car to drive home and even drank a bit more while behind the wheel. On the way, he sideswiped another vehicle and sent it into the ditch, but he didn't even realize it. A few miles down the road, he was pulled over by the police.

Back then, though, police weren't so strict. They knew you, he said, and more often than not would simply give drunk drivers a ride home instead of taking them to jail. That's exactly what happened that night. The police took Amondson to his mother's house after making him promise to return the next day to receive his tickets.

The next day, Amondson got his five tickets - although they weren't anything severe. He was never charged with drunk driving. But as he looked over the damage to his car, he began to question what he was doing to himself and what he was doing to other innocent people on the road when he decided to drink and drive, he said. Since then, he's never gotten behind the wheel drunk, he said.

It was about 10 years later that drunk driving touched his life again. It was 1:45 a.m. May 20, 1990, when Amondson got the call. His mother had been walking along the road at about 9:45 that evening in Balsam Lake, Wis., when a drunk driver in a three-quarter-ton truck hit her and then drove away. Police pronounced her dead at the scene. The driver had a .292 blood-alcohol concentration, well above the .10 legal limit at the time. It was his fifth drunk driving incident, and he was charged with vehicular homicide.

The effects of the crash went far beyond grieving over his mother's death, however.

"There's a lot of emotional impact," he said.

About half a year before the crash, he and his mother had gotten into a fight and had stopped talking to each other. It was a week before Mother's Day, but he had already decided not to even send his mother a card. Her death meant he would never be able to repair the relationship.

He had a lot of anger and frustration towards his mother and towards the driver who killed her, he said, and then he started lashing out emotionally against his wife.

"That's one of the worst things you can do," he said, "because you can't see the hurt you're doing to the other person."

When he finally realized the pressure he was putting on his marriage, he talked with her and admitted he needed help. It was then he found out she had been planning on leaving him. With his admission, they were able to repair the damage. A year and a half of counseling helped them through, and she supported him through it all until health problems took her life.

"She never left me. She stood by me," he said.

"It's been nine years and I miss her a lot."

Speaking out

Around 1994, Amondson started reaching out to the community. Feeling he was ready to face what had happened to his mother, he collected the reports and photos and started reading through them. It took a few days to sort through it all, but by the end of it he had come to realize just what kind of tragedy it was, and what sort of situation was created by one person deciding to drink and drive.

"This is a bad thing," he said. "But I want to do something better. I want to do something to maybe help people not to have to go through this."

He wrote down notes and put together a slide show and took it to his local driver's education class in Eau Claire, Wis. After that first presentation, he started reaching out and speaking to high school students in Medford, New Richmond and Amery, Wis. The drive time got to be expensive, but it was an important cause to him, he said.

It was a telemarketer that led him to the next phase. Amondson hates telemarketers, he said, but one night he got a call from a Mothers Against Drunk Driving representative, and it caught his attention. Once he got the contacts, he started looking into the organization. That same year he joined MADD, became one of its state representatives and started a new chapter in Eau Claire County. In his second year, he stepped back, as his level of involvement got to be a bit too much. He still continued his presentations at the schools.

"I felt this was very personal and very important to me," he said.

Amondson's message hits home with many of the students he talks to. Oftentimes teachers require the students to write a letter following the presentation reflecting on what they heard. Amondson has boxes of letters.

"I can't tell you how many times these letters have made me cry," he said.

Speaking in Hastings

Amondson moved to Hastings in April, and Wednesday's presentation was his first in Hastings High School. While he normally gives his talk to students around prom, he decided to target the holiday season this year.

"I don't want them to start their year with a drunk driving crash," he said.

Amondson's hope is that by sharing his story, he can make people think when they get behind the wheel and realize that a decision to drink and drive doesn't only affect them, but also affects others on the road.

A drunk driving crash can mean jail, a hospital stay or worse, death. It's tragic at any time of year, but especially so during the holidays.

"They're meant to be with family and they're meant to be with friends," he said.