Alcohol-Related Crashes Down in New Mexico County

Santa Fe County has seen the number of crashes involving alcohol drop sharply over the past year, and experts say that’s evidence New Mexico’s drunken-driving laws, police enforcement and education are making the state safer.

“It’s not noise. It’s not random. There is a real trend going on there,” ignition interlock advocate Tom Starke told The New Mexican. Interlock devices allow people convicted of drunken driving to continue to drive when sober by measuring alcohol content in a person’s breath.

A report prepared by the Santa Fe Prevention Alliance shows the number of alcohol-related crashes decreased from 128 in 2012 to 106 last year. The number of DWI arrests was also down, and one less person died in a drunken-driving crash in 2013 than the previous year.

Starke and others believe one factor is New Mexico’s ignition interlock law, which mandates one of the devices for all DWI offenders. The state currently leads the nation in the number of interlocks installed per 10,000 residents.

“It definitely helps and drives home message,” Santa Fe Police Chief Ray Rael said.

Another factor cited by experts is forfeiture laws.

In both the city of Santa Fe and Santa Fe County, law enforcement authorities can seize a person’s vehicle if he or she is arrested for drunken driving and already have a conviction on their record.

Since 2009, anyone arrested for driving while their license is revoked also can lose their ride. Last year, the city and the county seized 554 vehicles, compared to 504 in 2012. Many of those will be subject to permanent forfeiture.

Starke said police and sheriff’s deputies have been catching a lot of people driving after a license revocation.

The officers are “pretty merciless” when it comes to drunken-driving offenses, Rael said.

“We are strongly enforcing all these laws, and ultimately we believe it’s having an impact. If you are going to drink and drive, you are going to expose (yourself) and eventually get stopped,” the chief said.

Rael said he believed the decline in alcohol-involved crashes is related more to education about the effects of drunken driving and strengthened enforcement.

“The probability of getting arrested for DWI, the cost of defending yourself and possibly losing your vehicle – all this starts adding up quickly and having a serious impact on your finances,” he said.

Statistics from the Santa Fe DWI Planning Council show the re-arrest rate of first-time offenders declined by 55 percent since 2002. The number of alcohol-involved crashes fell 40 percent between 2002 and 2010, and alcohol-involved injuries declined 47 percent in that same time period.

Lupe Sanchez, director of the county’s DWI program, attributed the improvement in the DWI picture to a combination of factors, including the interlock, checkpoints and saturation patrols, vehicle seizures and public awareness.

Whatever the reason, “anytime crashes go down, we’re grateful,” he said. “One life is huge.”