Cover Stories

The Fast and the Furious

Santa Fe residents reckon with dangerous (and noisy) roads

(Anson Stevens-Bollen)

Upon my arrival, I spoke to driver #1…[who] stated he was traveling westbound on Cerrillos Road in which he approached the intersection of Cerrillos Road and Baca Street. [The driver] stated as he entered the intersection he observed an orange in color vehicle making a left turn from Cerrillos Road onto Baca…he stated as the orange in color vehicle entered the intersection he tried to avoid colliding into it by swerving but the vehicle collided into his vehicle and sent him into the building. —Santa Fe police report

The call from the Santa Fe Police Department came mid-morning on Sept. 30 last year, just before Congeries Consignment owner Shawn Vallecillo would typically head to her store.

When she arrived, Vallecillo encountered a red truck that had crashed through her storefront. A police report from the incident—quoted above—says the car’s driver had swerved to avoid another vehicle turning into the intersection. Instead, the cars collided, sending the truck crashing through Vallecillo’s building.

A red truck came through the window of Congeries Consignment Sept. 30, 2023 in order to avoid crashing into another car attempting to turn onto Baca Street from Cerrillos Road. (Courtesy Shawn Vallecillo)

After watching someone attempt to pry a sofa from the store floor from the truck’s bumper, she realized she had to relocate. The incident, after all, followed one the year prior in which one speeding driver had cut off another, sending one of the vehicles into the same part of the store.

“The road layout is just too dangerous,” Vallecillo says. “A customer or myself would have been killed if we had been on that side of the building.”

She eventually reopened her second location near Whole Foods Market, while the flagship store remains at 1368 Cerrillos Road and faces its own challenges, she says.

“There’s around nine parking spaces out front, but customers don’t want to park there anymore because they have to back out onto Cerrillos,” Vallecillo says. “The vehicles are just too fast.”

Vallecillo’s experience serves as just one example of those affected by a string of traffic behaviors on Santa Fe’s roads—most notably Cerrillos and Airport Roads—that locals—and law enforcement—say have increased in recent years, while resources to address them remain stretched. Those behaviors led citizen action coalition Stop Aggressive Driving to recently lobby Santa Fe Mayor Alan Webber and the City Council to prioritize traffic enforcement in next year’s budget. Vallecillo says Cerrillos Road business owners like her—and her customers—want something to give.

“There needs to be new laws or enforcement on mufflers, speeding and street racing,” Vallecillo says. “I mean, it’s ridiculous.”

***

I was on patrol in full uniform, displaying my badge of office, and operating a fully marked Santa Fe Police Department patrol unit. I was traveling northbound on Zafarano Drive, approaching Cerrillos Road. I observed two large pickup trucks at the Cerrillos Road intersection, northbound on Zafarano Drive. I saw a large cloud of heavy white smoke behind the trucks and heard the tires on the trucks spinning their tires. I saw smoke coming from both vehicles. —Santa Fe Police report from June 2, 2023

In response to public outcry over dangerous roadways, SFR filed a public records request with the City of Santa Fe and SFPD for traffic-related incidents and complaints over the last two years. While the request was not fully answered by press time, officials returned roughly 50 police reports documenting drag-racing and other illegal activities.

In the one quoted above, Officer Laura Gluvna eventually pulled over one of the drivers and asked if he was under the influence of drugs or alcohol after observing his “excessive speed, running multiple red lights and racing another vehicle.” The driver informed Gluvna he had smoked cannabis earlier in the day and drank two beers “a long time ago.” Gluvna placed the driver under arrest, with the report noting the instance marked the third DWI on the man’s driving record. He also lacked insurance and had an expired registration.

Other incidents include one last August in which a driver on Cerrillos Road was continuously accelerating at speeds beyond the posted 35 mph as an officer attempted to pass while en route to a call for service. Later that month, another driver was ticketed after being observed traveling south on Cerrillos Road side by side with another vehicle at speeds in excess of 100 mph. Yet another on on Zafarano and Cerrillos in September 2023 involved a vehicle speeding southbound on Zafarano “doing a burnout” (spinning tires to cause smoke) while occupying two left turn lanes. When the officer observing the vehicle activated emergency equipment, the police report notes, “the vehicle continued a burnout while conducting a U-turn…striking a curb while the traffic light was red.” And so on.

In the last month alone, Santa Fe Police Department have noted a handful traffic incidents related to suspected racing and unsafe driving, including a racing incident mid-May that sent two people to the hospital and another May 26 in which a vehicle suspected of racing another struck a pedestrian non-fatally on Cerrillos Road.

The aftermath of a two-car collision at the intersection of Cerrillos Road and St. Michaels Drive on the morning of June 7, 2024. (Evan Chandler)

Capt. Thomas Grundler, who oversees the traffic unit and DWI unit for the Santa Fe Police Department—among other responsibilities—tells SFR law enforcement has seen “a steady increase in traffic-related complaints throughout the city” since 2020. Police Chief Paul Joye notes the increased traffic problems come amid an overall increase in crime, with 2023 marking “our highest call volume here in recent history,” he tells SFR. “I can’t think of another year that was higher. We are already on track so far in 2024 to pass it, which impacts our availability to do traffic because that’s more calls for service that we’re responsible for. That’s free time we would have had to do traffic.”

As it stands now, Grundler says roughly 80% of the citations can be attributed to the department’s three traffic officers. Two of them work the day shift from 7 am to 5 pm, while one night officer handles 9 pm to 7 am.

According to Joye, those three traffic enforcement officers, along with one traffic sergeant, also serve as the department’s crash investigations team.

“We do have a handful of auxiliary traffic officers…they’ll also assist with traffic operations and crash investigations, but also, all of our officers are commissioned and able to enforce traffic laws, and they’re encouraged to do so when they’re not responding to calls for service,” Joye says.

Then there are the department’s traffic-centric operations, such as its 2020 “Slow and Quiet” operation downtown to curtail downtown drag racing and exhibition driving, and the recent Operation Spring Blitz, focused on dangerous driving behaviors, iterations of which happen seasonally. Those types of initiatives, Joye notes, are “department-wide operations that are open to any sworn officer.” All this to say, he emphasizes, “we have three officers whose primary focus is traffic, that doesn’t mean that there’s only three officers who enforce traffic law.”

During Operation Spring Blitz, between April 5 and May 3, officers issued 511 citations, including 57 for speeding; three for reckless driving and seven for muffler noise. While effective, Grundler notes such operations also tend to rely on over-time, itself an “increasingly difficult” prospect given ongoing staffing challenges. Furthermore, people don’t tend to understand the full job description, he adds.

“I know a lot of guys would rather be writing citations than taking a lot of calls for service,” Grundler says. Because those calls for service can lead to investigations, “and those take a considerable amount of time and energy to make sure they are done correctly.” They can also sometimes take as long as two weeks, depending on how complex they are, he notes.

“It becomes very difficult when you couple that with the fact that staffing levels on patrol in general have been challenging, the call volume is excessive at times,” he adds. “It becomes a situation where traffic can fall to the wayside only because we just don’t have the manpower to address it all at the same time.”

In other words: “We are more than aware of it, and we definitely care,” Grundler says. “We just have limited resources.”

***

“At approximately 7 pm, police responded to a report of a multiple vehicle crash at Cerrillos Road and St. Michaels Drive. A witness told Dispatch that a vehicle had hit numerous vehicles on Cerrillos Road while racing and weaving through traffic, before running a red light and causing the crash. Officers arrived and found the northbound lanes of Cerrillos were blocked due to debris from the crash and the suspect vehicle. Fortunately there were no injuries reported. The suspect was seen fleeing the scene following the crash by witnesses. In total, seven vehicles were involved in the crash.” —SFPD news release, Dec. 23, 2023

On May 28, the City of Santa Fe governing body held a special meeting to discuss spending priorities and invited public input. The meeting followed Mayor Alan Webber’s announcement the week prior that the city would be spending $56 million from surplus funds on one-time large projects, such as $3 million each to Midtown infrastructure and the Affordable Housing Trust Fund.

Several members of Stop Aggressive Driving—a citizen action coalition that formed in 2022—showed up to request investment in enforcing traffic laws and making the roads safer—and quieter.

Tim Langley led off the entreaties with an extended metaphor:

“If I were diagnosed on the same day with hypertension, type-two diabetes and an abscessed tooth, I’d deal with the abscessed tooth first, not because it’s the most important or the most serious of my problems, but because it’s the most readily treatable. Santa Fe’s toothache is the city’s loss of control over its streets to a subset of unpredictable and aggressive drivers who speed, tailgate, run red lights and race all night long with illegal attack mufflers roaring. For a critical mass of our residents—they live everywhere from Airport Road to Hyde Park Road—living in our city has become an ordeal. Getting a good night’s sleep has become impossible. We don’t ask that these bad driving behaviors be made illegal; they’re already illegal. We ask that existing laws be enforced with enough consistency, duration and consequence to deter the offenders. Technology to monitor speed, sound, red light running, identify the offending vehicles and issue tickets to the registered owners already exists.”

Earmarking “a modest slice” of the millions the city intends to spend on projects toward traffic-calming technology, he concluded, would “make a difference in the lives of city residents who are trying to obey the law.”

Regarding the noise component, the Council has been here before. In 2022, the body considered a proposal to hike fines for violating its existing traffic laws requiring that every vehicle have a muffler in good working order to prevent “excessive or unusual noise,” and which bans muffler bypasses, cutouts and similar devices that amp mufflers. A memo on the proposal at the time from Deputy Police Chief Matthew Champlin noted the increasing number of complaints “regarding the use of loud modified mufflers” in the city and their “direct impact on the quality of life in several areas of the city. This includes not only high pedestrian traffic and open commerce areas such as the Santa Fe Plaza, and downtown area,” he wrote, “but also residential neighborhoods throughout the city.”

The Council ultimately approved a compromise bill that raised fines, albeit not as much as had originally been proposed, due to concerns about the bill targeting younger motorists in certain parts of town. A proposed state law that would have prohibited modified mufflers died in committee at the following year’s legislative session.

Santa Fe Police used this “old school motor officers” image on social media to kick off a 2022 “Spring Blitz” focused on traffic violations. (Courtesy Santa Fe Police Department)

SFPD enforcement of Santa Fe’s ordinance followed the increased fines. SFPD issued 30 muffler citations in 2022 versus 149 last year—the most the department has ever issued, Grundler notes. Officers have written 60 citations for muffler noise in 2024 so far, he adds.

Still, residents say the noise factor continues, and often accompanies dangerous behavior, critics say.

“It’s not just the noise problem,” SAD member Adam Wasserman tells SFR. “It’s a general dangerous and aggressive driving” behavior that accompanies the noise.

Santa Fe Motel & Inn General Manager Brian Graves tells SFR he has complained to the police about “aggravating” noise and speed issues down Cerrillos Road following complaints from employees and guests whose rooms sit nearest to the main road.

“We don’t get too many complaints in general, but the ones we do get periodically are from loud mufflers,” Graves says. “[Drivers] come around the corner and they gut it. Even if they have to go 50 feet to the traffic light, they hit it pretty hard. And it is loud.”

Karen Gahr, a 22-year resident of Santa Fe who lives in a neighborhood near the Sage Hotel, also notes increased excessive muffler noise in the area. She tells SFR her concerns stem from having the noisy and speeding cars in “a serious pedestrian area.”

“It’s a congested area, and it’s 35mph and they don’t understand that. It’s certainly unsafe. It’s certainly illegal. And it’s certainly extremely annoying,” Gahr says. “We’re letting the people that won’t comply with the law rule and make other people—the majority—uncomfortable.”

Santa Fe Motel & Inn General Manager Brian Graves says he hears loud muffler noise around three times a day on average. The business sits across from CHOMP Food Hall on Cerrillos Road. (Evan Chandler)

She recalls a racing incident that resulted in a car going across the intersection near her home and hitting the telephone pole. “I think our power was knocked out during that incident, so there’s a lot of radical stuff going on,” Gahr says.

She says she also supports the use of noise and speed cameras.

“If you’re not using technology, how can you possibly do any enforcement at all?” Gahr asked. “I just feel that the city is not truly paying attention, and these drivers are offending all the other people with the noise and the speeding.”

Police tell SFR they also support adding traffic enforcement technology, with both Grundler and Joye describing such equipment as “force multipliers” for limited police manpower that would “greatly affect driving behaviors” across the city.

“It’s completely unbiased. It doesn’t care who’s driving and doesn’t know who’s driving,” Grundler says. “It only reacts to the fact that you’re speeding over the preset limit and issues citations accordingly.”

Traffic safety, however, did not figure heavily into the initial presentation for the one-time special sending, minus $350,000 for improved intersection marking and $85,000 for speed humps in the Calle Atajo neighborhood. Mayor Alan Webber says the FY25 budget, which the governing body approved earlier this month, includes $250,000 for the police—whose FY25 budget is just under $40 million— to contract with a vendor to review traffic technology options

Moreover, Council members displayed mixed reactions to the call for more speed cameras and the like. As SFR reported following the meeting, District 2 Councilor Michael Garcia supported the proposition to “invest in technology to keep our roadways safe,” and suggested investing $1 million—including the amount allotted within the FY25 budget—for noise and speed cameras.

“This is ultimately an issue that as we’ve heard loud and clear tonight, and it’s a concern for our residents,” Garcia said. “If we’re going to invest in resources, we need to invest in the quality of life as well for our residents.”

District 1 Councilor Signe Lindell, however, said she was less inclined to spend the one-time dollars on road-monitoring technology, noting “this is one-time money” for staff-informed recommendations, “and this is how they think we can get the greatest amount of traction for all of our constituents.”

“This Council is not inclined to raise fines. This Council doesn’t like high fines. We’ve made that clear,” Lindell said. “But you can give out a ton of low-price tickets.” The city can buy the cameras, she noted, but “Who’s going to run them? It takes a budget. It takes personnel…Let’s be real about this list and what we can get.”

As for Webber, he tells SFR he believes dangerous driving behaviors have “always been a challenge” in Santa Fe.

“I think that if you talk to people who are longtime residents, people driving dangerously or poorly is almost to the point where it’s—I hate to say it—it’s a standing joke,” Webber says. “I’ve had people or friends say, ‘Well, in Santa Fe, a yellow light is a suggestion and a red light is kind of a hint that you should stop,’ and it’s only funny until, like everything else, people get hurt, and then it’s not so fun.”

***

“Almost every day and into evening there are ‘street meets,’ where individuals engage in dangerous activities in the parking lot of the Santa Fe Fashion Outlets. These activities include ‘taking over’ the parking lot to engage in drag racing, drifting competitions, music competitions (loud car stereos), as well as public consumption of alcohol and marijuana. This is a near daily occurrence and occurs over several hours, often until the early hours of the morning. I have reported this to PD, the management of the mall, as well as constituent services on multiple occasions. I am requesting immediate assistance with this issue.” —City of Santa Fe constituent services complaint, March 2024

Numerous national reports show a rise in dangerous driving behavior and the perceptions therein coinciding with the 2020 onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. In a 2022 report, AAA said drivers self-reported increases in speeding, red-light running, drowsy driving and impaired driving from cannabis or alcohol use from 2020 to 2021, a reversal from improvements in the years prior. Last year’s Travelers Risk Index from Travelers insurance company reported 70% of Americans surveyed said distracted driving was an increased problem from years prior, while a National Safety Council study shows a nearly 14% uptick in traffic accident fatalities last year compared to pre-pandemic numbers.

Local officials such as Grundler and the mayor also believe the uptick in problems on Santa Fe’s streets follows the pandemic lockdown.

Muffler and brake sounds reverberate down Cerrillos Road as cars drive by on a Friday evening. (Anson Stevens-Bollen)

“I think what may have happened was that people felt that COVID really interrupted their ability to be themselves and to have a presence and they had to live at home for two years, and the frustration has taken a number of different forms,” Webber says, noting the city also saw an increase in littering post pandemic. “People just said, ‘What the heck, it doesn’t matter,’ and I think the same thing has happened with driving and mufflers.”

Resident Molly Langley, who also spoke at the meeting, along with her husband Tim, tells SFR whatever the solution—fines, speed bumps, flashing signs—”doing nothing is not an option. When the landscape changes like it did, then we have to address it as a government matter and from the citizens’ perspective,” she says. “We have to meet the issue where it’s at.”

Webber says the city “gets the message” and understands “there are technological capabilities that we could implement.” But how that happens—the details—makes a difference, he says.

“We want to treat these kinds of citation situations with the appropriate people,” Webber says. “It’s kind of like having an alternative response unit to take up some of the work for dealing with social issues rather than having police do it.”

Stop Aggressive Driving coalition members agree, with member Wasserman saying such systems need to be “carefully designed” and “there has to be lots of upfront communication with the public and telling people what we’re doing and allowing people’s voices to be heard. That’s critical to get any of these systems accepted by the public.”

Of course, the best solution, SFPD Chief Joye notes, is the simplest: “The most effective solution would be the behavior change of the folks out there that feel like it’s cool that are choosing to modify their vehicles,” he says. “How that became a popular trend, or how that became something fun to do, I don’t know. Maybe I’m too old, which is certainly possible. But ultimately, it lies with the people who are choosing to do it. It lies with behavior, and how do we get them, encourage them to change their behavior.”

Santa Fe driving citations, provided by SFPD

Muffler Citations

  • 2022: 30
  • 2023: 149
  • 2024: 60

Reckless Driving

  • 2022: 80
  • 2023: 66
  • 2024: 32

Racing On Streets

  • 2022: 35
  • 2023: 61
  • 2024: 7

SPRING BLITZ RESULTS

The Santa Fe Police Department wrapped up its latest traffic enforcement operation at the beginning of last month. The effort, coined “Operation Spring Blitz,” resulted in 511 total citations, according to Capt. Thomas Grundler. The operation lasted from April 5 to May 3.

Below are the figures provided by category.

  • Speeding: 57
  • Speeding in School Zones: 11
  • Cell Phone: 27
  • Uninsured: 93
  • Uninsured: 93
  • No Registration: 133
  • Stop Sign Violation: 55
  • No License: 21
  • Careless Driving: 3
  • Reckless Driving: 3
  • Muffler: 7
  • Other: 94
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