Emma and Duncan Woods with son JacobA mother who lost a young son when he was hit by an out-of-control car driven by a teenager has won a New Zealander of the Year honour for her spirit of forgiveness.

Emma Woods was walking on the footpath of a busy Christchurch street with her two sons, Nayan, aged 4, and Jacob, 6, in May when a car climbed the footpath and struck the family, killing Nayan and injuring Jacob and Mrs Woods.

The car, modified to do “drifts”, was driven by 18-year-old shop assistant Ashley Austin, who lost control of it while accelerating after he rounded a corner. He was on his way home from work and had not been drinking. He pleaded guilty to dangerous driving causing death and other charges, and, thanks also to the forgiving attitude of the Woods family, did not go to prison.

The New Zealand Herald, which ran the New Zealander of the Year nomination contest, noted that “the reaction we had come to expect from other tragedies was grief-fuelled anger and cries for harsh penalties.

There was none of that from Mrs Woods.

Instead, she took the time to get to know the driver, Ashley Austin, 18, accepted he had made a mistake, told him to not let it ruin his life, urged a judge not to send him to prison and hugged him when he was distraught.

Canadian born Mrs Woods said it was not just an automatic reaction on the part of herself and her husband. They worked through it over several months.

“I think Duncan and I both held really similar views and we were both raised in really similar ways by quite loving and intelligent families that were able to teach us to try to look at the wider picture. There’s definitely been anger towards the situation and to circumstances around the situation. But it’s never really seemed like a good use of energy to be angry with Ashley, because I knew that that wasn’t going to change anything.”

Even her other son, Jacob, 6 – when told that Austin might go to jail for Nayan’s death – questioned why that should happen when it was an accident.

It helped that Austin was not a regular hoon.

The key for Mrs Woods was learning who Austin was, “to know if this was just a random accident or it was something that had been building.

“If I had heard that he was going out every night or having a good time, or his life was just carrying on as usual then, yeah, there would have been anger at that point. But that’s not the case.”

Good choice, fellow Kiwis.

And the Emma Woods spirit seems to be spreading. A 23-year-old woman who lost control of her car driving to work and killed three of a line of cyclists was in court yesterday, in tears and taking full responsibility for what happened.

The family of one of the victims have been sympathetic and forgiving. The son said:

“One of my first reactions was ‘wow I could have done that myself’, the way I drive sometimes, it kind of opened my eyes,” he said.

Accidents happen. Perpetrators need to take responsibility. Amends have to be made. But at the end of the day, hurts and wrongs have to be forgiven.

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan is the former deputy editor of MercatorNet