New Mexico struggles to get drunken drivers off the road


SANTA FE, N.M. -- After pleading guilty to drunken driving, Joseph Tapia followed the judge's orders and showed up one night in November at a forum at Santa Fe Community College to hear from accident victims.

The trouble was, Tapia appeared to be drunk.

"He was making sounds, staggering and swaying as he stood in line, telling people to hurry up," Sgt. Joseph O'Brien, a Santa Fe County sheriff's deputy, told the sentencing judge, Magistrate Pat Casados, after tracking her down at home while Tapia, a 51-year-old suspended lawyer and repeat offender, stood in handcuffs.

The episode highlights the intractability of the problem of drunken driving in New Mexico, which until the early 1990s regularly led the nation in the rate of alcohol-related road deaths.

The carnage stirred an outcry, leading to legislative measures that cut the toll and made New Mexico something of a model.

Now experts worry that the gains are eroding.

New Mexico is still seeking solutions. It is the only state with a DWI czar. A federal grant has put 10 full-time officers on patrol for drunken drivers in five counties. And this year New Mexico became the first state to require first offenders to install a device on their vehicles that prevents their starting if a driver's breath betrays appreciable alcohol.

But with fatalities again on the rise, some embarrassing incidents involving public officials and a string of deaths involving serial offenders, some of whom were still on the road after as many as two dozen arrests for driving while intoxicated, experts worry that New Mexico is losing ground.

The state is hardly alone in suffering from what has been called the most common crime in the United States. Nationwide, about 1.5 million drunken-driving cases are filed annually -- 300,000 more than all theft and larceny cases combined, according to FBI figures. The impact has been disproportional in New Mexico, a largely poor and rural state of about 1.9 million people, where overburdened courts, haphazard record-keeping, ethnic and cultural factors, and a society that long winked at alcohol abuse are all cited as factors.

The problem is more complex than mere alcohol consumption. New Hampshire leads the nation in drinking, with 4 gallons a year per person, far more than New Mexico's 2.4 gallons. But New Hampshire's alcohol-related road fatality rate is less than half of New Mexico's.

"There is a long history of DWI in New Mexico," said Rachel O'Connor, an injury specialist named last year by Gov. Bill Richardson to coordinate research and enforcement programs as the first DWI czar.

As far back as 1913, the first New Mexico Legislature voted to jail and fine drunken drivers. By 1982, when 375 people died in alcohol-related vehicle accidents, New Mexico had the worst record in the nation, more than three deaths for every 100 million vehicle miles -- almost twice the national average, according to Federal Highway Administration figures.

The state sought various remedies, passing a measure holding liquor sellers accountable for intoxicated customers involved in serious accidents. It revoked licenses of drivers with a blood alcohol level of 0.10, won court approval for sobriety checkpoints and banned open alcohol containers in vehicles.

But nothing galvanized public action like a crash in 1992 when a drunken driver going the wrong way on Interstate 40 killed an Albuquerque woman and her three daughters on Christmas Eve.

In the ensuing furor, with the driver, Gordon House, sentenced to 22 years in prison, the drunken-driving threshold was lowered to 0.08, from 0.10, jail terms were specified for repeat offenders, liquor drive-up windows were shuttered and licensing restrictions were expanded.

By 2000, fatalities had dropped by about 48 percent, to 194, with Montana and six other states and Puerto Rico overtaking New Mexico in the rate of alcohol-related road deaths.

Since then, the number of New Mexico deaths has crept back up, to 219 last year, prompting an investigation by The Albuquerque Journal. Arrests, which had hit a high of 23,597 in 1993, declined to a low of 18,719 in 1999 but began climbing the next year. Last year, there were 19,400 arrests.

At the same time, convictions dropped from a high of 17,392 in 1993 to a 20-year low of 11,735 last year. Conviction rates dropped from nearly 75 percent in 1985 to 60 percent last year. And drunken drivers still kill people on New Mexican roads at twice the national average, state figures show.

"What everybody gets flabbergasted about are the repeat offenders," said Linda Atkinson, executive director of the DWI Resource Center, a nonprofit victims-advocacy group in Albuquerque. But, she said, first offenders account for 70 percent of the drunken-driving fatalities.

The challenge, experts said, is prevention.

"People are trying to enact laws based on emotion rather than what works," said state Sen. Phil A. Griego, a three-term Democrat who credited his two arrests for drunken driving and the "learning experience" of three days in jail in 2002 for helping lead him to sobriety and prominence as an anti-DWI crusader.

What worked, Griego said, were tough law-enforcement and the forced installation of ignition-interlock devices, under the law he co-sponsored. He credited the device, which is set off by a blood-alcohol level of 0.025, with helping him stay sober.

"I was probably a drunk for 28 years," said Griego, who is 57. "There was no way I was going to stop until I killed somebody, killed myself or got thrown in jail."

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