New Mexico's DWI tragedy has turned into big business.
Hey there, big guy.
Having a few drinks? Then listen up. Think you've had one too many? Then it's time to call a cab or a sober friend for a ride home. It sure is safer and a hell of a lot cheaper than a DWI. Make the smart choice tonight, don't drink and drive. Remember: Your future is in your hands.
This is what New Mexico's war on drunk driving has become: a message of temperance delivered by a sultry woman's voice cooing from an automated urinal cake.
To be precise, 500 automated urinal cakes-each imprinted with the state DWI mantra ("You Drink, You Drive, You Lose") and distributed to the restrooms of bars and restaurants throughout New Mexico at a total cost of about $10,500. The devices-ordered last fall by the state Department of Transportation (NMDOT)
from a New York company called Healthquest Technologies-are just the latest tool in the state's DWI arsenal.
But for whatever talking urinals provide in the way of barfly punch lines ("The future isn't the only thing in my hands, honey"), they also underscore state government's increasing desperation to curb DWI.
"We've gotten to the point where we have to take some drastic measures," state Sen. Joe Carraro,
R-Bernalillo, says. "We can't just use the usual vanilla approach to things if we really
want to address the problem."
Drunk driving is clearly one of New Mexico's most serious problems, with arrest, crash and fatality statistics that consistently put the state among the nation's leaders in DWI-related problems. A DWI arrest occurs approximately every 26 minutes, an alcohol-related crash once every three hours and a fatality every 44 hours.
"I know somebody is going to die this week," Terry Huertaz, executive director of the New Mexico chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), says. "I just don't know who, and that
frightens me. With that in mind, we have to continue to do everything we can to solve the problem."
Indeed, in his State of the State address to open the 2007 legislative session, Gov. Bill Richardson declared DWI to be "our top priority" and encouraged legislators to ramp up their already zealous efforts to pass tougher and more comprehensive DWI laws. The governor's tenure already has been marked with flurries of DWI legislation, large increases in DWI funding and a massive statewide public awareness campaign.
"I think the state has made a lot of strides," Rachel O'Connor, who was appointed to the $70,000-a-year state DWI czar position in 2004, says. "We've had a lot of new programs and a lot
of public policy changes in the past three years in terms of DWI."
But those efforts also have created an entire DWI industry of lawyers, urinal cake makers and ignition interlock providers who are meeting the demand for an unnerving supply of DWI offenders.
Rough estimates indicate that New Mexico's DWI defense attorneys and the interlock industry combined rival the annual financial impact of the state's fabled chile industry, which tallied $46.9 million in cash receipts in 2005.
There are five state-approved interlock providers in Santa Fe. By comparison, there are four for the entire Denver metropolitan area, a region whose population (approximately
2.4 million) is larger than the entire state of New Mexico.
"We've created these multimillion-dollar cottage industries that profit from [DWI]," Linda Atkinson, executive director of the nonprofit DWI Resource Center in Albuquerque, says. "What's frustrating for me is that 70 percent of our drunk drivers show up in a crash before we ever see them in an arrest. So while interlock can be an effective tool, selling it as the panacea is a disservice to the community."
State government will allocate approximately $20 million for county DWI programs this year in addition to more than $10 million in federal and state DWI funds targeted at measures like "Super Blitz" checkpoints and the Five County Program aimed at
reducing DWI in high-risk counties.
A significant portion of that money will focus on a public awareness campaign centered around the "You Drink, You Drive, You Lose" slogan. The state's Traffic Safety Bureau-the leading agency on DWI issues-currently has more than $5.3 million in active contracts for media purposes (some spread over multiple years). By comparison, the US Transportation Department will spend $7 million on its entire 2007 national DWI advertising campaign.
And the $30 million in federal, state and county funds slated for 2007-a significant increase from just two years ago-still represents only a portion of the overall amount spent by the state on implementing day-to-day DWI prevention, enforcement, education and treatment throughout various state agencies.
But the increased spending has not yet resulted in comparable drops in any key DWI areas.
"Years ago, we might have had a $2 million or $3 million budget to address DWI, and today it's close to $30 million," Atkinson says. "Richardson has put [DWI] back on the radar screen but,
quite frankly, we haven't seen huge reductions in DWI with those dollars."
In fact, while state and national statistics show a drop in New Mexico DWI rates for the 2005 fiscal year (the latest available statistics), the news ahead doesn't look promising.
According to the latest NMDOT Highway Safety and Performance Plan, alcohol-related traffic incidents are actually
in several areas over the 2006 and 2007 fiscal years.
Nonetheless, advocates for the new DWI reforms and initiatives believe progress is being made.
"The definition of insanity is when you do the same thing over and over again and expect a different result," Tim Hallford, president of the New Mexico Interlock Distributors Association, says. "For years, the state did the same thing again and again and it wasn't working. Now they're trying different things to make the roads safer. There is no fix-all solution, but these things seem to be working."
Then again, appearances can be deceiving.
Few people exemplify the lingering deficiencies in the state's
DWI strategy more than Dana Papst. The 44-year-old Tesuque man became inextricably linked as the public face of DWI when he caused a Nov. 11 head-on crash that killed five members
of a Las Vegas family (and himself) [Outtakes, Nov. 22, 2006: "
Papst had a blood alcohol content four times the legal limit when he drove the wrong way and smashed his pickup truck into a minivan driven by Paul Gonzales on Interstate 25 near Santa Fe, killing Papst, Gonzales, Gonzales' wife, Renee Collins-Gonzales, and three of their daughters.
"Unfortunately, a tragedy like this brings light to the fact that we haven't solved the problem," Huertaz says. "This crash was difficult for everyone because we were doing everything we could think of to stop something like this and it happened anyway."
Huertaz was instrumental in helping form the state's official DWI strategy as a member of a group assembled by Richardson in 2003 to create a comprehensive plan focusing on enforcement, prevention, public awareness and treatment. Among other things, that panel created the DWI czar position that O'Connor eventually filled.
Since then, O'Connor has overseen a statewide effort in which almost every state agency serves some function in the DWI fight. Under the guidance of Richardson and O'Connor, state legislators have approved a series of sweeping DWI reforms that include a 2005 law requiring mandatory ignition interlocks for first-time offenders. Since 2004, the state also has doubled its "Super Blitz" checkpoints from four to eight a year while pumping DWI funds into state and local agencies.
None of those measures stopped Dana Papst, who held a valid New Mexico license and had never been convicted of DWI in the state (though he had four DWI convictions in Colorado). But the Papst tragedy also inspired a significant flurry of government action-and spending.
In the weeks after the crash, Gov. Richardson allocated approximately $3 million to bolster DWI efforts, including
increasing law enforcement in Santa Fe County.
Legislators also jumped into action. Among the most substantive was a bill (sponsored by Rep. Ken Martinez, D-Cibola) mandating ignition interlock devices for out-of-state drivers who previously have been convicted of DWI, which has since been signed into law.
And, on April 5, Richardson signed Senate Bill 121 into law. The law-sponsored by Carraro-appropriates approximately $3 million in NMDOT funds just to study whether installing wrong-way tire spikes on highway off-ramps will reduce the number of people driving the wrong direction on New Mexico freeways.
But the bill's passage-which Carraro pursued in two previous legislative sessions to no avail-says much about the current DWI political climate in New Mexico.
"Is it a knee-jerk reaction? Sure," Carraro says. "Is one of the reasons this bill passed because a family was killed by somebody going the wrong way? Yeah. But there's nothing wrong with getting it right."
Not everyone is convinced that wrong-way strips will make a discernible impact on the DWI problem even if the $3 million study eventually results in statewide implementation.
"The state is looking at how we can use hazard-elimination to stop drunk drivers," O'Connor says. "Obviously, there's not going to be one fix-all thing with the issue of the wrong-way drivers. There are some issues with the spikes, but there are some other things that we can do."
The other things the state is doing to combat DWI can be
summed up in six words: "You Drink, You Drive, You Lose."
The slogan is a variation on the "You Drink & Drive. You Lose" campaign launched by the
National Highway Transportation Safety Department around the time New Mexico was developing its DWI strategic plan in 2003. But the state's version has come to embody an expansive public awareness campaign that ranges from advertisements on posters and billboards to radio, television and newspaper spots.
The campaign is predicated on the idea that those six words-coupled with highly visible enforcement in the way of "Super Blitz" checkpoints-both educate and, in effect, intimidate drivers about what will happen if they're soused when they get behind the wheel.
"We try to vary the message, but it's all branded around 'You Drink, You Drive, You Lose,' and that's been an important thing for us," O'Connor says. "Part of what we know works on DWI is a combination of enforcement and high-profile public awareness about enforcement."
But Atkinson says that slogan rings hollow when the latter part of the equation-enforcement-falls short. She says the biggest holes in the state's DWI campaign are the dearth of law
enforcement on the ground, the lack of financial and logistical support for prosecutors and the unwillingness of judges to implement strong sanctions.
"The idea is to publicize around law enforcement and help raise the perception of the risk of getting caught," Atkinson says. "The problem is you have to make sure you're actually doing the enforcement. You can't advertise something that isn't actually being done and expect people to take it seriously."
In fact, the state has put as much money into giving the perception of strong enforcement as it has actual enforcement.
According to Traffic Safety Bureau statistics, the TSB will allocate $1.5 million in federal funds during the 2007 fiscal year for additional law enforcement officers to combat DWI. During that same time, the TSB will use more than $1.5 million in federal funds for DWI-specific media programs.
According to TSB records inspected by SFR, there is currently at least $845,000 in active media contracts with statewide television stations (including $100,000 to KOAT-TV) and radio groups ($100,000 to Clear Channel) in 2007. TSB also has $2.8 million allocated over three years for "media placement" and $700,000 for "film/audio production." In fact, the TSB has allocated $85,000 just to hire a contractor to manage all of its DWI media contracts.
O'Connor insists the money has been well spent and that the advertising campaign resonates with New Mexico residents (particularly children and teenagers) while urging citizens to take a more proactive role in the DWI fight.
"What we're starting to see now is a bit of a shift in public awareness," O'Connor says. "It's not just the police that are going to be the enforcers. You, your family, your neighbor,
your community might be enforcers. It's not just the state that wishes to stop it, it's all of New Mexico."
And advocates say creating that level of public awareness requires extreme-and unusual-measures.
"The DWI message is not a new concept," Richard Deutsch, co-owner of Healthquest Technologies and inventor of the "interactive urinal communicator," says. "But getting people to listen to the message is an extremely difficult challenge. You need a unique delivery, and most people aren't accustomed to a talking urinal."
Deutsch says his company has either provided his Wizmark brand of talking urinal cakes or is negotiating to provide them to at least five other states, including New York, Minnesota and Texas.
"What's significant about Wizmark is that it actually gets people to talk about a public service announcement," Deutsch says. "People who see a talking urinal inevitably go back to the bar and start talking about it, and it basically becomes viral in that it becomes a topic of discussion in and of itself."
But PSAs-let alone novelty campaigns-aren't always effective. At least according to Kalle Lasn, editor of Adbusters magazine-the flagship of the Adbusters Media Foundation, an
organization that looks critically at advertising.
"I've been looking at these kind of PSAs over the last 20 years and I can think of hardly any that have been really successful," Lasn says. "I don't think the approach of Big Brother giving you an order penetrates at all. And sometimes that approach can do more harm than good."
Olaf Werder, a communications professor at the University of New Mexico who specializes in the social influences of advertising and health-related ads in particular, agrees that basing a public awareness campaign on retribution can have unintended consequences.
"I think there may be a lack of proper planning in the approach," Werder says. "Clearly, the state is using a fear appeal, but using fear in health communications is very problematic. You're going to reach some people, but scaring people into doing things doesn't work for everybody-and, in fact, some individuals will just be more resistant when being told what to think and what to do."
Furthermore, even gung-ho lawmakers question the talking urinals.
"I think those are completely ineffective," state Sen. John Grubesic, D-Santa Fe, says. "I've seen guys leaving bars laughing about it. I think if push comes to shove and you really want to stop it, it's not going to be with slogans or urinal cakes. That stuff will not work."
Instead, legislators such as Grubesic and Martinez are pushing for more drastic methods, like making interlocks mandatory for all New Mexico drivers.
"I think it's an alternative that we need to seriously consider because these quick fixes and half-measures just don't work," Grubesic says. "If we truly want to deal with this definitively, I think we need to ask ourselves if it's time that we do something like put interlocks in every single car."
Tim Hallford is the man for that job. Hallford was among the first
Santa Fe interlock entrepreneurs when he opened the doors to Adobe Interlock in March 2002. "When we first started, all of us were small, little businesses that were definitely not turning a profit," Hallford says. "It was really tough just to stay open."
Today, Hallford operates eight Adobe Interlock businesses across the state. He also owns Sanctions and Solutions (which provides interlock services) and a consulting firm that advises legislators
and interlock providers in other states.
In addition, Hallford is the state representative for a leading interlock manufacturer (Dräger Safety Diagnostics) and is a registered lobbyist for the interlock industry as president of the New Mexico Interlock Distributors Association. That organization was formed, Hallford says, so that interlock businesses could pool their resources for insurance purposes, provide statewide interlock coverage (including mobile service to rural areas) and to create a code of ethics to help regulate the burgeoning industry.
"There is a huge perception-and you can call it the sleaze factor-that we're just making money on DWI offenders hand over foot," Hallford says. "If that's a concern of the public, then I guess they should be concerned about defense attorneys and treatment counselors and everyone else who makes money off of an offender."
Defense attorneys are indeed among the sectors that have benefited from DWI. "It's great to have a DWI walk through the door because it's $2,000, $2,500 right off the bat," Grubesic, himself a defense attorney, says. "There are a lot of [lawyers] who handle DWI because it can be financially rewarding to represent these individuals."
But arguably, no industry has benefited more from DWI legislation than interlock providers. As such, interlock providers have maintained a steady presence at the Roundhouse in recent years.
"Whenever we have a potential DWI law, it's all the interlock guys who show up at the judiciary committee meetings," Grubesic says. "They love it. The stricter the law is, it's more money in their pockets. But I don't know if that's necessarily wrong or at least extraordinary. In the long run, the interlock industry is no different than any
other industry that has lobbyists at the Legislature."
This past session, Hallford helped lobby for the successful passage of the law that requires out-of-state drivers with DWI convictions to have an interlock device installed. The law undoubtedly will reap a windfall for the interlock industry, but Hallford-like a lot of interlock providers-insists his business is more about community service than raiding the DWI honeypot.
"There are easier ways to make money," Hallford says. "A lot of us are committed with our hearts, not just looking at that we're going to make a lot of money. We're providing a valuable service, and as long as we know we're saving at least one life a year it's worth it to all of us."
The interlock industry certainly has a captive client base in New Mexico. With at least 12,000 new clients every year-the estimated number of annual DWI convictions-and multiple offenders offering repeat business, the interlock industry could conceivably see its annual sales hit the neighborhood of $20 million given that the average interlock cost for each offender is approximately $1,000 per year.
Under current laws, first-time offenders are required to have the device for a year, while multiple offenders have them for two years (second offense), three years (third offense) or life (four or more offenses). And while there are loopholes that allow some offenders to avoid installing the devices, officials say they plan to continue closing them.
All totaled, Hallford estimates that there are currently approximately 8,500 people using interlocks from approved providers across the state. But the buck doesn't stop there. Those providers lease the units from seven officially approved manufacturers in other states, as well as Canada and Germany.
And already, companies developing the next generation of alcohol-testing products-including Albuquerque's TruTouch Technologies-are jockeying for future DWI business in New
Supply and demand? Yes, but Hallford says that's not the only motivation.
"Yes, our businesses rely on a social problem, but I'd be fine with it if that social problem went away and I had to fold my tent up and go home," Hallford says. "If the roads are that safe, I'm good with that. But, of course, we haven't seen that happen and I don't know if we ever will."
Dana Papst is the cautionary tale of the Nov. 11 crash. Arissa
Garcia, the lone survivor, is the face of hope. Charles Williamson…well, he's just collateral damage.
Williamson-a 55-year-old Bernalillo man who says he "feels 85"-moved to New Mexico in 1984 from Oklahoma. He worked as a hairstylist for several years before diving into the construction business full-time. Williamson thought he'd secured his retirement when, in 2003, he built the building that would eventually house the Bernalillo Chevron Redi-Mart.
Williamson operated the gas station and convenience store for approximately 18 months before he leased it to an Albuquerque gas distributor called Ever-Ready Oil Company. In order to boost lagging sales, Ever-Ready rented a liquor license from New Mexico gas station behemoth Giant Industries.
In the weeks after the Papst accident, police revealed that Papst had purchased a six-pack of Bud Light and some beef jerky at the Chevron Redi-Mart shortly before the crash. The hammer came down soon after. The state cited Ever-Ready and stripped it of the liquor license it had leased from Giant. All for what Williamson calls a "30-second mistake."
"It's a judgment call," Williamson says of identifying drunk customers. "If the governor himself had been behind the counter that night, there's a 90 percent chance that he would have sold the guy the beer."
Ever-Ready-a company that operates more than 30 gas stations in New Mexico-vacated its lease when it expired on Feb. 28, but Giant is free to use the liquor license it leased to Ever-Ready at another store.
Williamson closed the store on March 19 and is now on the brink of bankruptcy. He says his personal tribulations might be worthwhile if the state passed meaningful legislation-he suggests mandating alcohol-testing technology in convenience stores-instead of merely using him to make a point.
"It breaks my heart every time I think about it," Williamson says. "There is no doubt that it is just a horrible, horrible tragedy. But taking Giant's license, running Ever-Ready out of there, putting me in the position that I'm in…that doesn't change anything."
Williamson's situation, though extreme, may foreshadow what's ahead. In the last year, the state has cracked down on businesses violating state liquor laws. O'Connor says that effort will heighten in 2007.
"We have 20,000 arrests a year on DWI and half of them are coming from bars or restaurants," O'Connor says. "I think if you serve someone 15 drinks in 60 minutes-and we're seeing
that a lot in New Mexico-you need to be held accountable."
In addition to more liquor compliance checks and an expansion of the "Super Blitz" program, O'Connor says the state is ramping up its prevention and enforcement efforts. But it remains to be seen whether those measures will have a significant effect on the state's DWI rate.
The most recent statistics show that New Mexico moved from sixth highest in the nation for alcohol fatalities to eighth, but it's still well above the national average.
"We're still one of the 10 worst states in the nation," Atkinson says. "With all of the resources being spent on DWI, I would like to see more reductions in the death and injury rate than we have."
Statistics from the latest Traffic Safety Bureau annual report show most rates either stayed static or decreased slightly, while the rate of alcohol-involved pedestrian fatalities actually rose by more than 60 percent.
One contributing factor to the problem is that law enforcement agencies statewide are suffering from moderate to severe staffing shortages. Huertaz, among others, also thinks more attention needs to be paid to education, prevention and treatment.
"Drunk driving is not a disease and alcoholism is not a crime," Hueratz says. "I get frustrated sometimes when people blend those two together. We need a comprehensive approach."
That hasn't happened yet. According to statistics from the state's community DWI program-which gives cities and counties money from traffic citation fees-less than 4 percent of the nearly $900,000 allocated in the 2006 fiscal year went to treatment programs. Only three counties (Grant, Eddy and San Juan) spent any money on treatment programs, while most, including Santa Fe and Bernalillo, spent none.
Finally, the Papst case underscores the limits the state faces when trying to regulate behavior of an act that largely hinges on individual responsibility.
"I think a change in culture has to take place in order for us to really see a huge reduction," Rebecca Beardsley, Santa Fe County DWI program coordinator, says.
The question is: Can you buy a change in culture?
"We can throw money at the problem all day long," Atkinson says. "But without any real accountability for where those dollars are being spent and without succinct data analysis and problem-solving, we'll just continue with the crashes and the deaths and the injuries until we change the system."