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Driving Blind

Politicians say they’re solving the drunk driving problem. They’re not.

May 13, 2009, 12:00 am

 Here’s how the numbers get juked. Take that stat showing a 35 percent decline in “alcohol-involved” traffic fatalities since Richardson took office in 2002: Factually, it’s correct.

But if the bureaucrats had started measuring in 1998, when there were 188 such deaths, the drop was only 24 percent through 2008, a year that saw 143 drunk driving deaths in New Mexico.
Even that more modest statistic misleads.

“There’s not really enough fatalities in a given year to draw firm conclusions as to where that fatality rate is going,” Stephen Prisoc, chief information officer for New Mexico’s Administrative Office of the Courts, says.

Prisoc has analyzed judicial data for 25 years—in Illinois and New Mexico—and is wary of drawing broad conclusions. He says other factors—from seat belt use to the number of passengers who happened to be in cars that crash—could explain a rise or fall in deaths in any given year.

Indeed, 2008—the year Richardson’s office trumpeted as a record low for drunk driving deaths—also set a nationwide record high for seat belt use, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. New Mexico surveys found that seat belt use increased about one percent a year during five years of Richardson’s tenure.

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Carlos Fierro was booked in Santa Fe County jail after an alleged hit-and-run.

In other words, if the DWI death rate is actually dropping, no one can be sure why. It could be because of Richardson’s initiatives, like mandatory ignition interlocks. It could also be due to air bags, which the federal government began requiring in all new cars in 1999.

According to the state Motor Vehicle Division, there are now nearly four times as many cars on the road made after 1999, with mandatory air bags, than registered cars built before that year.

“In all states, as our older automobiles on the highways have been replaced with newer cars with better safety features, of course those head-on crashes that often come with DWIs will result in fewer fatalities,” Prisoc says.

Policy makers also boast that New Mexico’s DWI death rates have fallen dramatically relative to other states.

That could be good news—unless it means other states have gotten worse. Furthermore, feds have changed the method for measuring DWI fatality rates. Feds used to count each DWI death against every 100,000 people in a state. Now they stack deaths against a stat that measures traffic, called “vehicle miles traveled.”

“If you start measuring by vehicle miles traveled, you’ll find Hawaii ranks very high for DWI deaths,” DWI Resource Center board member and math whiz Steven Flint says. “In the rest of the states, you have not only local traffic but traffic from neighboring states. So you wind up with a lower rate. Whereas in Hawaii, the only traffic is Hawaii traffic.”

By the new measure, New Mexico, once the worst drunk driving state in the nation, now ranks in the middle third. But if the feds’ yardstick hadn’t changed, according to Flint’s analysis, New Mexico would still rank in the top 10.

Progress supposedly marched on last year, too, with an 18 percent drop in New Mexico drunk driving deaths over 2007. “The drop seems largely related to behavioral changes connected with $4 per gallon gasoline and economic recession,” according to Flint.

That makes sense, considering that in Colorado, drunk driving deaths dropped by about the same percent. But New Mexico compares poorly to its neighbor. New Mexico still had 20 more drunk driving deaths than Colorado last year—and twice as many people live in Colorado.

Besides, how New Mexico compares to other states distracts from a more important number: how many people die on the roads here each year because of drunk drivers.

That number has fallen steadily—but not dramatically—over the past two decades. And again, the decline may have more to do with improved car safety than with any of the state’s costly enforcement and advertising campaigns; the latest, called “Women Drive Drunk, Too,” shows a fallen woman against a backdrop of flames, presumably representing hell.

The rule applies to Santa Fe County, as well. In 1996, 16 people here died in drunk driving crashes. A decade later, 14 did. Six died last year. This year, three so far. Sometimes the dead wore seat belts, but most often they didn’t. Crashes happen. There are good years and bad years.

“It’s a matter of luck,” Prisoc, the state statistician, says.

That kind of analysis doesn’t sit well with those who think drunk driving will stop when everyone behaves responsibly all of the time.


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