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Driving Blind

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

May 13, 2009, 12:00 am

If DWI dissidents are right, being better demands a whole new approach. So far, though, inertia rules.

“If they were to give me a blank check, I think I’d just probably expand on everything we already do,” Beardsley says.

Which would be fine if the state had its priorities straight. “If you look at any budgets, you’re always going to see that the majority of monies are put into reacting to the problem versus preventing the problem,” Pacheco says.

And what officials tout as proactive measures are actually reactive ones.

Take ignition interlocks, made mandatory in 2005 for first offenders. Interlocks get most of the credit for supposedly reducing drunk driving in New Mexico. At least four shops in Santa Fe can install them; it’s a small cottage industry.

Even critics say the interlocks deserve some credit for deterring repeat offenders. But they’re only effective up to a point.

“It’s ridiculous—let’s make this golden bullet, this ignition interlock, be what saves us all,” Atkinson of the DWI Resource Center says.

According to DWI Czar O’Connor, approximately half of New Mexico offenders waive the interlock—which would allow them to keep driving legally—and instead promise not to drive during probation.

Yet many continue to drive anyway, in someone else’s borrowed car. “I couldn’t even begin to tell you” how many, Beardsley says. “I can tell you we see them drive up to the buildings next door.”

Those who ignore the interlock rules can’t be stopped unless they happen to get caught by police. Some lobby groups, like Mothers Against Drunk Driving, believe the loopholes could be closed by subjecting offenders to even tighter monitoring—including actual home visits by government agents.

MADD and most police also support the ultimate penal approach: holding bartenders responsible for their patrons’ conduct.

New Mexico’s so-called “third-party liability law,” which dates to 1993, provides for fines against a liquor licensee or server who overserves a customer. Police and politicians call it a “valuable tool” against DWI. In practice, it works more like Prohibition Light, giving authorities a way to crack down on bars they don’t like.

Albuquerque lawyer Mark Rhodes defends liquor license holders and often tangles with the state police’s Special Investigations Division, which investigates third-party liability law violations. “In the course of [one] case, it came out that they were targeting certain bars. There are old memorandums sent to SID agents that these are ‘problem bars,’” Rhodes says. “Now it’s done verbally.”

Rhodes believes the existence of a “problem” list implies the existence of a “protected” list. That’s what many New Mexicans suspected when SID failed to cite the Rio Chama bar, where Carlos Fierro and former NMSP Sgt. Lovato racked up a 16-drink tab before Fierro’s hit-and-run.

Several weeks after SFR filed a records request, a state police spokesman was still “working” to find out the last time SID agents conducted an enforcement at Rio Chama.

The now-closed WilLee’s Blues Club, where Fierro and Lovato drank after leaving Rio Chama, wasn’t on the old “problem” list, either. But the bar’s owner often said he was targeted by SID agents, undercover and otherwise.

Even if the law is enforced fairly, it misses the point. Only half of the state’s drunk drivers had been drinking in bars before their arrests, Atkinson says. The other half bought their booze over the counter. So why all the attention on “problem bars”?

Santa Fe County has tried a few anti-DWI efforts beyond what the state does.

In March, it expanded drug courts to take repeat DWI offenders. But right now, there are only a handful of people in the program, which includes group therapy, acupuncture, alcohol testing and what Beardsley calls “pretty intense” treatment.

Sheriff Solano is working to implement a vehicle impound program for repeat offenders, which Santa Fe County commissioners passed in 2006. He hopes to have the impound lot running within six months, but says the process was delayed by a dispute with the owners of the Rancho Viejo subdivision where it’s located.

Both are ideas that have been tried elsewhere and might help. But the most effective solution may be the most counterintuitive: If you can’t solve the alcohol problem, work on the auto-mobile problem.

“We do have a bus system,” Beardsley says. “These people made a conscious decision to get behind the wheel of the car when they drink and drive.”

Of course, buses don’t run after the bars close or in rural areas. A number of cities and colleges around the country find it’s worth the money to run late-night “drunk buses,” as they are informally known, to ferry the soused masses safely.

Santa Fe County has a high desert version of what’s known in the trade as a “safe rides” program—but it’s tiny and underused.

The county used to operate a free Friday and Saturday night “CADDy” program, so drunk folks could get a cab ride home. As many as 192 people in a single night took free rides home during the program’s first month in 2007.

After three months, the county started char-ging $5 a ride and $10 for groups. Participation dropped dramatically, then leveled out, thanks in part to sporadic advertising.

Today, Capital City Cab gives approximately 100 discounted drunk rides every weekend night. Beardsley says many riders are repeat users and visitors who get the number from their hotel concierge. Which means a lot of local partygoers aren’t using a service that could prevent crashes—either because they don’t know about it or the program doesn’t work as advertised.

SFR called the CADDy Hotline—995-9528—during the week, and got messages saying the number had been disconnected. The Santa Fe New Mexican pointed out the same problem last year. (The solution? Tell the cabbie you want the CADDy ride.)

The CADDy program’s base budget is only $35,000 a year, though supplemental funds brought it up to $55,000 this year. That’s roughly equal to the annual salaries of the two DWI patrol deputies the Sheriff’s Office fields on an ordinary night.

So it costs approximately $550 a night to keep 100 potential drunk drivers off the road by giving them a cab ride—a bargain next to the cost of arresting, prosecuting, sentencing and monitoring even one drunk driver who would get caught.

It only makes sense those savings would grow if the program were expanded and Santa Fe hired more cabbies in addition to cops.

“I have mixed feelings,” DWI Czar O’Connor says. She thinks safe-ride programs, while probably effective in cities, are no substitute for keeping people sober: “You can’t serve somebody as much as you feel like [just because] they have a safe ride.”

This attitude is revealing. Because when anti-drunk driving activists talk about “changing the culture,” they often mean promoting alcoholic abstinence.

America tried that before. “Prohibition didn’t work. We have to look at how we use alcohol,” Santa Fe Sobering Center Manager Richard Lucero says. In Europe, he notes, alcohol is “a family ritual at dinnertime, where teenagers are introduced to alcohol, and they use it responsibly.”

Crackdowns can backfire. According to a 1923 survey of 30 US cities, cited by the Cato Institute, drunk driving arrests spiked 81 percent under Prohibition.

Back then, of course, there were no interstate highways to speed down.

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Corey Pein

VanNorman accepts a DWI plea deal in the Santa Fe Magistrate Court.

Remus VanNorman, 28, tells the story of his first DWI last July like this:

He and a buddy were driving toward Santa Fe from a night out in Albuquerque. “I had a couple margaritas. My friend was completely shit-faced and swerving, so I decided to take over the wheel,” he says.
State police stopped him for speeding. VanNorman claims they had no basis to stop him, as they didn’t have a radar reading. And in his plea deal, Assistant 1st Judicial District Attorney Gilberto Juarez—who, as a new attorney, spends almost all his time prosecuting DWIs—threw out the speeding charge.

VanNorman says he blew barely over the limit—a 0.09—and argues the result could have been a calibration error on the portable police breathalyzer. That’s entirely possible; proving inebriation is one reason police complain DWIs are difficult to prosecute. It’s also possible VanNorman was too drunk to drive—but nevertheless in far better shape than his passenger.

In any event, police say—and VanNorman admits—he took off running into the woods when he was told he’d be arrested. After getting booked, he served 40 days in jail for violating probation on a previous drug trafficking charge.

The prosecutor thought that was enough. With time served, his punishment amounts to $462 in fines and court costs, probation, community service and an ignition interlock.
“I think that’s justice, in this case,” Juarez says. So that’s one down…  SFR


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