Hitting speeds of more than 100 mph, two cars raced down Interstate 25 in the Friday night darkness toward the heart of Albuquerque, N.M. One weaved in and out of traffic before smashing into the back of an unsuspecting family’s SUV.
The Nov. 12 collision sent the vehicles rolling, ejecting 10-year-old Carmen Esmeralda Rivera and killing her – in a gruesome crash that has reignited a push by a New Mexico lawmaker and the state attorney general’s office for tougher penalties for those convicted of reckless driving resulting in death.
The driver accused in Esmeralda’s death, 23-year-old Xavier Nelson, pleaded not guilty last week to charges of reckless driving, street racing and possession of prescription drugs. Nelson, who has no prior criminal history, was released on bond pending trial and faces no more than six years in prison if convicted of the more serious reckless driving charge.
Sarah Maestas Barnes, a Republican, plans to pre-file legislation this month that would increase the crime to a second-degree felony punishable by up to 15 years behind bars – the same punishment drunken drivers now face when convicted of vehicular homicide.
State Attorney General Hector Balderas, a Democrat, is backing the effort and plans to seek support from Democrats and Republicans.
The crash and the heartache that followed were avoidable, said Maestas Barnes, a mother of two young daughters and a lawmaker whose district includes areas frequented by street racers.
“A person chooses to drink and drive. A person chooses to drive erratically and recklessly down the streets. A person chooses to drag race. It’s a conscious decision,” she said in an interview, “and we have to ensure we have laws in place that protect New Mexicans so that we don’t have another family that’s suffering the loss of a loved one.”
Balderas said the current maximum punishment illustrates a lack of parity in how New Mexico treats reckless drivers and drunk drivers.
“It’s absurd that the law treats a drunken driver with more accountability than a driver who chooses to operate a vehicle at 112 mph and then kills somebody,” he said.
Stiffer punishment for reckless drivers was supposed to be addressed during the 2016 legislative session that ended in February but the measure was amended in the final hours by the Democratic-led Senate.
Maestas Barnes and Balderas acknowledged it could be difficult to attract legislative support for the lengthier reckless driving prison terms but said the death of Esmeralda could give the effort a boost.
She was one of the 369 people who died on New Mexico roads between January and November, a number that far surpasses the 298 killed in 2015.
State transportation officials say they know of no particular trend or causes behind the rise and are maintaining campaigns against distracted and drunk driving.
Alcohol-related crashes make up nearly 40 percent of the total fatal accidents in 2016, about the same as last year.
“We see it time and time again – someone has too much to drink, then gets behind the wheel and kills someone. Or someone sends a text message then ends up in a fatal crash,” said Emilee Cantrell, a transportation department spokeswoman. “We all play a part in preventing tragic crashes. Everyone needs to demand that their friends and family are responsible when they get behind the wheel.”
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