Driven to Action

updated 12/22/2003 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/22/2003 AT 01:00 AM EST

Even before the words "Dad, I have horrible news" could register, Ryan Nielson could hear the panic in his son's voice. Twenty-four-year-old Matt was calling on a cold evening last January to say he'd just hit a pedestrian with his car in Park City, Utah, and had been arrested for drunk driving. Worse, it looked as if the victim, a young Brazilian woman named Ana Paula Bussmann, would die. Over the next several days Nielson, a former police officer, visited the 22-year-old repeatedly in the hospital in Salt Lake City, where she was on life support. Nurses told him she was brain-dead. "The thought that my son did this brought a horrible feeling," he recalls. At one point Nielson offered up a fervent prayer: If Bussmann could pull through, he vowed to make amends.

His plea was answered. Bussmann survived and regained consciousness, though she is currently coping with severe injuries. And even though Matt was sentenced to as many as five years in prison after pleading guilty to a felony DUI charge last May, Nielson has held up his end of the bargain. Six nights a week, after putting in a full day as a deliveryman for a graphics firm, he canvasses the bars and nightclubs of Salt Lake City until nearly dawn, offering to act as a designated driver to anyone who needs it. As he sees it, if he can prevent a single tragedy like the one that befell Bussmann and his son, his efforts will be worthwhile. "He's made the dangers very personal," says Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson, himself a former bartender. "People are far more conscious now that it can happen to them."

After napping each evening for a few hours, Nielson begins his rounds. He stops by area nightspots and hands out a card with the number for his free service, asking people to call at any hour if they've had too much to drink. "The planning has to happen in advance, when you're sober," explains Nielson, 50. "When people are intoxicated, they have no judgment." Generally his phone starts ringing after 9 p.m. and sometimes doesn't stop until 5 a.m. On a typical Saturday night he might ferry as many as 20 people, some of them drunk, some of them slightly tipsy and some just looking for a free ride from one bar to another.

Nielson draws no distinctions and makes it a point to pass no judgments. Some passengers leave an unsolicited tip, but so far Nielson has spent about $6,000 of his own money, mostly to cover the cost of the SUV or van he rents so as to avoid any insurance claims against his personal car. One bar, Shaggy's, donates $1 of each $5 cover charge to him. "He followed through with his promise to give help," says Matt of his father. "Not everyone would do that."

Nielson's efforts are also a means of redeeming himself. Born and raised in the Salt Lake City area, he joined the University of Utah campus police when he was 26. "He was a very good cop," says Kim Beglarian of his onetime partner, who in 1979 won the Utah Peace Officer of the Year Award after single-handedly capturing, while off-duty, three men who had just committed a murder. "He could elicit a confession out of anybody."

But Nielson's career took a downturn after he joined the narcotics unit of the Park City police in 1987. Five years later he was busted by the FBI for transporting cocaine for a dealer and spent three years in prison. His wife, Shauna, the mother of Matt and Jennifer, now 22, divorced him—a string of events that, not surprisingly, had a "huge impact" on Matt, according to Ryan. Released from prison in '95, Ryan started getting his life together after he met Victoria Daum, a secretary, whom he married two years ago. "She always looks for the positive," says Nielson.

For Bussmann, the road to recovery looks to be a good deal more arduous. As a result of the accident, she suffered bleeding in the brain, along with a broken leg and internal injuries, and was in a coma for 4½ months. Bussmann, who had been working at a lodge in the Park City area and became engaged shortly before the accident, was flown home to Curitiba, Brazil, in June. She can speak haltingly but still cannot walk. (Her doctors are hopeful she will be able to walk again someday.) Her family holds no grudge toward Matt, who apologized in person to them before they left. "Hate in the heart is a useless emotion," says Bussmann's sister Daniela, 19. "There is nothing we can do about what he did."

Perhaps not, but Nielson is determined to try. He's already looking to expand his service with the help of more volunteers. When Matt gets out of prison in August 2006, he wants to join his dad on the patrols. "This isn't something I like to do," Nielson says. "It's something I have to do."

Bill Hewitt. Carolyn Campbell in Salt Lake City

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