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Cover Illustration by by Rick Sealock

Nowhere Fast

An ambitious plan to streamline state driving records took a wrong turn and stalled out—in court

November 3, 2010, 1:00 am

Earlier this fall, the US Department of Transportation released a report that indicates New Mexico, in figure after figure, is a dangerous place to drive. The state has a crash rate that is 63 percent higher than the national average, more traffic fatalities per 100,000 people than any other state in the Southwest and an overall ranking as the 11th most deadly place to drive a car.

DWI, despite years of legislation and discussion, remains a state staple.

Battling DWI has taken a variety of approaches, from ignition interlocks and ankle bracelets to impounds and checkpoints. But one approach is simple and nontechnical, and works for all driving-related infractions: Prosecute offenders to keep them from driving. 

The trouble is, it’s not so simple. For many years, drivers have slipped through the cracks opened by shoddy record keeping and, as a result, poor prosecution.

The key to the ongoing problem lies in the state’s Byzantine and error-prone record system.

As recently as 2002, all police citations were written by hand, mailed to the courts and the Motor Vehicle Division by the US Postal Service, and entered manually into a variety of databases. The error rate for data entry alone is between 5 and 10 percent, according to Administrative Office of the Courts Chief Information Officer Steve Prisoc.

In 2002, the Department of Transportation conceived of a multi-pronged solution. All of the driving records data would be assimilated into one database to provide a simple panoramic view to police, courts, state agencies and prosecutors, thus allowing police to issue citations more easily, clerks to avoid human error in tracking those citations and, finally, prosecutors to prosecute. 

DOT Chief Information Officer Bob Ashmore says TraCS would remove citation disincentives for police officers.

To begin, the DOT decided that police departments would adopt a technology developed in Iowa called Traffic and Criminal Software (TraCS), which would let police officers use computers in their patrol cars to check off the citations and instantly include them in and compare them to drivers’ records. This way, DOT Chief Information Officer Bob Ashmore says, the laborious disincentive for officers not to cite drivers disappeared. 

“It takes a lot of time to fill out those forms and, if you have to do more of them by hand, you’ll pick the easiest ones,” he says. “Just my common sense would tell me that. Now, it’s easy. You just push another button and collect another citation.”

To spearhead the new technology, the DOT in 2004 hired a local IT company, Albuquerque-based Bency & Associates, to develop a pilot and roll it out in six law-enforcement agencies around the state, including the Doña Ana County Sheriff’s Department and the Santa Fe County Sheriff’s Office. 

“It saves my officers time in writing multiple citations, and they’re a little more accurate,” Santa Fe County Sheriff Greg Solano says. “I would call it a success.” 

So did the DOT. Police found the system easier than the paper-and-pencil method, and courts found the new forms printed from officers’ computers more legible. The forms were printed out and mailed in to the relevant agencies.

In 2006, after the completion of the pilot program, the DOT decided to take TraCS statewide to all police departments.

Its plan was to use a so-called Statewide Traffic Records System to automatically assimilate all the data from TraCS and send them directly to agencies. STRS had been originally conceived when the DOT decided to implement TraCS and—after six years of meeting after committee meeting, drafts of schematics and then more drafts—it finally had an idea of what it wanted. 

In 2008, DOT put out a request for proposal (RFP). Five firms bid for the contract and, based on criteria for experience, plan and cost, Bency won the contract and began the process of taking TraCS statewide with plans to integrate it with all relevant state agencies.

The contract was for $2 million per year—with the option for an extension. Had all gone as planned, the project would be finished by now, Bency & Associates CEO Elizabeth Bency says.

Instead, Bency is trying to get the contract money in court. In July 2010, the company filed a lawsuit alleging that the DOT impeded Bency from performing the work, that DOT owes Bency money for the work that was done and that two years remain for the company, and that DOT brass forced Bency to keep on an unwanted employee. In September, DOT terminated the contract.

The resolution of the lawsuit rests on a variety of technical facts related to the contract. The story behind the lawsuit reveals larger concerns about a large state agency with a history of problems.

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