“I’m nobody special; I’m just a mom,” Margaret Rebholz told a rapt audience of Shelter Island students last Thursday morning.
But the mother of three sons and a daughter does herself an injustice: She is a fierce and dedicated advocate against drunk driving.
It was August 6, 1996, when her son Tommy, 16, was to serve as DJ at the Heckscher State Park Youth Program in Nassau County. He asked his mom to drive him to pick up some sound equipment at a friend’s house, then deferred to her busy schedule and decided to do without it. But when an 18-year-old that night said he would drive Tommy to get the equipment, it became the last ride of the young DJ’s life.
The driver was drunk. Police said Tommy was killed instantly when the vehicle overturned in the park. The vehicle had been traveling 90 mph in an area zoned for 20 to 25 mph. Tommy was found still in his seat belt hanging upside down in the overturned car.
“We can all say we know it’s happened,” Ms. Rebholz said. “We all know drunk drivers are out there.”
In 2011, the last year statistics were posted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 10,228 people were killed in alcohol-impaired crashes in the U.S., accounting for nearly one-third of all traffic-related deaths in the United States.
When police came to her home to break the news that Tommy was dead, Ms. Rebholz refused to believe it. So sure that Tommy couldn’t be dead, even after police told the family, she went to the park to hunt for her son, sure he was somewhere in the woods.
“I didn’t know what to do,” she said. But at the morgue, she had to acknowledge that “on that stretcher was my baby.”
Today, she spends her time working as a victim’s advocate for Mothers Against Drunk Driving, counseling others who have lost loved ones in crashes and doing ride-alongs with police on the hunt for drunk drivers.
Shelter Island’s Communities That Care arranged to bring her to the school where she pleaded with students in grades eight through 12, “Don’t be like Tommy. Don’t be a statistic,” as tears brimmed in her eyes. “I never expected to be involved with a drunk driver.”
Students heard first hand how years of court proceedings interrupted the flow the Rebholz’s family and how the driver, who was initially sentenced to rehabilitation and parole, went on to drive drunk several more times, even fleeing New York State for California at one point to avoid serving a sentence for violating his parole.
Today, 17 years later, that driver is still on Suffolk County roads, Ms. Rebholz said. The original judge in the case had ordered the driver, after completing a few months of rehabilitation, to visit 25 schools to talk about the crash. After only a few visits, he never completed that order.
In the passing years, Ms. Rebholz’ other two sons and daughter abandoned original career goals to become police officers. All three have had numerous encounters with drunk drivers, including son John being dragged 478 feet by a drunk driver.
“He’s okay,” his mother said.
Son Timmy came close to being struck by a drunk driver while he was writing a ticket at the side of the road when he spotted swerving headlights. He was able to jump on the vehicle owned by the person who was being ticketed and saw his patrol car being struck. The impact knocked him off the other vehicle.
“He’s all right,” Ms. Rebholz said.
But given what her children experience on their jobs regularly, Ms. Rebholz said the reason she continues to tell her family’s story is because she has to do something to get the message out to those who take lightly the dangers of drinking and/or doing drugs and then driving.
Aided by two students, Ms. Rebholz had them demonstrate two of the roadside tests police administer to suspected drunk drivers — walking a straight line and standing on one foot while counting backwards from 100. After both students demonstrated they could do so with ease, she had them don special goggles that affected their vision. Drew Garrison, trying to walk the straight line, had to be aided to keep from falling. Chris Corbett could barely lift his leg and said he was dizzy as he tried to hold the pose while counting.
“We laugh about that,” Ms. Rebholz said. “But when I’m on the roadside, it’s not funny,” she said.