PLATTSBURGH — Since her son was killed by a drunk driver more than six years ago, Nora Montanaro-Davis has made it her mission to educate people about DWI dangers.
"This is my chance of making something good out of something horrific," she said. "I want people to be more aware of the consequences of getting behind the wheel intoxicated."
She was recently named Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) president for the Northern Adirondack Region.
While advocating for the rights of victims, MADD also takes a stance against underage drinking and many kinds of illegal driving, including driving while texting and with a suspended license.
Montanaro-Davis hopes to see a day when those who kill someone while driving drunk or with a suspended license are charged with murder, not manslaughter.
She referenced the part of State Penal Law that defines murder as "a depraved indifference to human life" in which the perpetrator "recklessly engages in conduct which creates a grave risk of death to another person."
Drunken driving falls into that category, she said, and she argues that unlicensed operation of a motor vehicle does as well, since people choose to drive when they have already lost the privilege due to violating the law.
SPEAK IN SCHOOLS
A professor at SUNY Plattsburgh, Montanaro-Davis is working with the college population and hopes to link with area schools so she can reach young people before they make the decision to drink and drive.
She also wants to partner with law-enforcement agencies, with the goal of changing the way members of the public view police.
Police don't exist to punish the public but to keep people safe, Montanaro-Davis said.
"They're there to protect us. They're there to help us. I would love it if schools, troopers and law enforcement invited me to speak."
She said she wished Steven Baker had been stopped by an officer before he hit and killed her eldest son, Albert R. Montanaro III, 11 days before his 21st birthday as he was jogging close to their Ausable Chasm home.
While Baker was sentenced to two to seven years in prison for second-degree manslaughter and served about four, she and her family will serve a life sentence of suffering, Montanaro-Davis said.
VICTIM IMPACT PANELS
Even after Baker's parole term ends in February 2014, Montanaro-Davis will tell her son's story to those who are ordered to attend the Essex County STOP-DWI Victim Impact Panel meetings. She wants to speak at panels in Clinton and Franklin counties, as well.
Montanaro-Davis said that anyone can attend the panels, and she would like to see parents bring their children, for an enlightening educational experience.
During the meetings, she tells offenders her belief that people want to do what's morally right.
But some of them show up at the Victim Impact Panels drunk, she said, and are arrested following the breath tests they are given at the start of the meeting.
Others seem to learn from the presentations and are able to empathize with the victims who tell their stories, Montanaro-Davis said.
"They're always surprised how many people come up and hug me after (the panel)."
A teacher of public speaking, Montanaro-Davis was involved in alcohol-related discussions long before Albert was killed, and she feels her talent for speaking will be an asset to her as MADD president.
Her father, the late Thomas James Finn, was a violent alcoholic, she said, and drove drunk many times, even with his children in the car.
"He never got a DWI."
Montanaro-Davis went to Rev. Bill Jablonski about her concerns, and every Wednesday for years, he would pick her up and bring to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, she said.
Jablonski was a priest at St. Gertrude's Church, a Catholic church on Long Island.
"The bishop was thrilled to have an articulate little girl who could speak publicly. It never occurred to me to be afraid," she said. "I fervently believed that I was helping people."
Montanaro-Davis said she spent about five minutes at each meeting speaking about her family's experiences with alcoholism.
"I'd always congratulate them for coming."
And at the end of each meeting, she asked the participants to pray that someday her father would join them at AA.
He started attending AA meetings in his 40s, she said.
Montanaro-Davis said she hopes to use her new position in MADD — and her confidence and voice — to make the world a better place.
Her message to those who toy with drunken driving is simple.
"Do the right thing."
Email Felicia Krieg: firstname.lastname@example.org
TO LEARN MORE
To learn how to get involved or to donate to MADD, email Nora Montanaro-Davis at at email@example.com or call her at 834-9051.