The emotional devastation of negligent driving spilled throughout a Washington County courtroom Wednesday, when a 31-year-old man pleaded guilty to killing a father of three in a hit-and-run crash.
Everyone involved will now prepare themselves for an emotional sentencing hearing on Sept. 19, when Circuit Judge Todd Martens decides whether Adam Neuhaus will be sent to prison for homicide by negligent operation of a vehicle. He faces a maximum of five years, with another five years of extended supervision.
Neuhaus drove into Habenicht on Appleton Ave., near Bark Lake Road, about 8:25 p.m. on Aug. 23, a calm summer evening.
At that moment, Neuhaus was driving home from a tavern in Richfield, emotionally distraught over a conflict with his girlfriend.
Habenicht, 50, was riding his bike home with a loaf of bread and other items from a nearby grocery store. He died less than a mile from his home. Police found his groceries strewn across the road.
Since the crash, Michelle Habenicht has woken nearly every night, thinking about her husband being left in the ditch, the loss of her companion and the father of their two daughters and son.
The guilty plea provides some relief, some certainty that Neuhaus will be held accountable, she said after the hearing Wednesday morning.
“I just want to find justice,” Michelle Habenicht said. “At some point … I don’t know if I can forgive him.”
Neuhaus can’t forgive himself.
His attorney, Anthony Cotton, said the factory worker walled himself off from his family and friends after the crash and suffers from depression and post-traumatic stress.
“He’s isolated himself,” Cotton said. “He thinks that everyone sees him as a murderer. He’s a wreck.”
The attorney said Neuhaus thought he had hit a deer, and realized what had really happened while watching news reports the next day, a Monday.
“He’s been a different person since that moment,” Cotton said.
The far-reaching impact of Neuhuas’ bad decision – driving after drinking and while emotionally distraught – highlights the responsibility that everyone on the road carries. Driving a 3,000-pound vehicle with the capacity to kill or seriously injure should not be treated as an after-thought, a secondary concern.
Neuhaus never expected to encounter a 50-year-old man riding a bicycle on the road, but all people behind the wheel should drive with that potential in mind. Habenicht was riding legally and properly, close to the right edge of the road, with flashing lights on his bike to alert drivers.
He was one of 15 people killed in Wisconsin last year in crashes that involved someone on a bicycle and someone driving a motor vehicle. The number of deaths was above the average for the state.
Statistics show, however, that riding a bike has become safer in recent decades. The number of deaths has dropped from an annual high of 30 in the 1970s, to an average of 11 over the past five years.
Since 1990, the number of injuries to people riding bikes has dropped from nearly 1,800 per year to about 800.
Injuries and deaths can be reduced further by following the rules of the road, traffic laws and the guidance of the Wisconsin Department of Transportation Share & Be Aware Program.
Driving slower and being alert to others on the road will keep you and your family from enduring the type of emotional trauma that is now part of every day life for Adam Neuhaus and the Habenichts.