Is New Mexico’s drunk driving problem getting better or worse?

FUZZY MATH: Drunk driving arrests and convictions have been going down in New Mexico. Is that an indication there are fewer impaired drivers on the road, or are fewer getting caught?

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

SANTA FE, N.M. — New Mexico taxpayers spend more than $17 million a year in liquor excise taxes to fight the state’s chronic and deadly problem with drunk drivers.

The good news is that the number of alcohol-related vehicle deaths in New Mexico in 2013 is down 40 percent since 2002.

But statistics showing a pattern of fewer DWI arrests and convictions in recent years are more problematic.

Does that mean New Mexico drivers are getting the message and not getting behind the wheel when they are impaired? Or do the figures indicate police are pulling over fewer drunk drivers — and that judges aren’t cracking down as frequently?

“Maybe it’s judges, maybe it’s technicalities, I don’t know what’s driving those numbers,” said state Sen. George Muñoz, D-Gallup, after a Legislative Finance Committee meeting questioned how effectively the state is allocating funding for the $17 million DWI program in local communities.

The numbers released by LFC showed consistent reductions in DWI arrests and convictions across the state between 2003-2013:

DWI prevention advocates pointed out to New Mexico Watchdog the most recent figures may be somewhat off because the state’s Motor Vehicle Department is going through a transition of its database. Plus, the dramatic drop in the percentage of convictions for 2013 may be due in part to cases not yet getting adjudicated.

Even if you ignore the most recent two years, there has been an unmistakable trend in fewer DWI arrests and convictions.

Tom Starke, president of Impact DWI, a Santa Fe-based nonprofit, said he thinks the numbers show the state is doing a better job keeping impaired drivers off the road.

“Those numbers have been falling very precipitously,” Starke said. “Yes, we would expect the number of arrests to go down if the number of (alcohol-involved) crashes is going down because it implies that our laws are working. And we’re getting fewer crashes so consequently, there are fewer opportunities for law enforcement to find people (driving drunk).”

Linda Atkinson, executive director of the DWI Resource Center in Albuquerque, comes to the opposite conclusion.

“I think we’re kidding ourselves if we think things are getting better,” she said in a telephone interview. “Non-DWI deaths also went down … And what we’ve seen consistently in the past eight years is that 40 percent of all fatalities are alcohol-involved … That tells us that policies aren’t working.”

The numbers compiled by the DWI Resource Center closely track with the LFC’s numbers, showing the percentage of arrests leading to convictions cracking the 70 percent mark in 2006 and 2007. Compared to the LFC’s 2013 conviction percentage of 36 percent, the DWI Resource Center had a 53 percent conviction rate for 2013.

“At 53 (percent), you think, this is pretty fricking bad, but to me, 70 percent is pretty fricking bad too,” Atkinson said. “To me, that is unacceptable. I think that’s way too low. If these are cases where the evidence is there, and it generally is, it’s just getting it to a hearing. Some attorneys are very clever and they find ways to circumvent the system.”

Starke, who deals with cases in Santa Fe County, credits the state’s adoption in 2005 requiring ignition interlock devices for all DWI offenders for making the roads safer.

“We believe that had a significant impact,” Starke said.

In the LFC report, committee evaluators said the $17 million local DWI program that is administered by counties needs to emphasize more evidence-based programs.

“Many counties track epidemiological data such as DWI crashes, but not all counties track the same data points,” the report said. “Therefore, it is difficult to assess LDWI program success county to county or statewide.”

“I think the money is being used very effectively here in Santa Fe County,” Starke said, adding, “New Mexico has made tremendous advances.”

But Atkinson said the state needs to focus more intently on enforcement and make reducing DWI a higher priority.

“I’d like to be rosy about it, but I think it does a disservice to victims that are still dying and being injured in these crashes,” Atkinson said. “That’s what I find frustrating. When we see the ads for ‘End DWI,’ the only thing in that (campaign) that’s going to stop a drunk driver is if a billboard falls on them. There has to be the enforcement.”

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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