N.M. Sees Fall In Alcohol-Related Driving Deaths New Mexico once led the nation in terms of car fatalities related to alcohol. Today it ranks 17th — it would seem due to aggressive policies aimed at reducing drinking and driving. Although many are applauding the state's get-tough approach, some believe the dramatic shift in the state's ranking has more to do with the change in the way federal authorities count the deaths.
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N.M. Sees Fall In Alcohol-Related Driving Deaths

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N.M. Sees Fall In Alcohol-Related Driving Deaths

N.M. Sees Fall In Alcohol-Related Driving Deaths

N.M. Sees Fall In Alcohol-Related Driving Deaths

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New Mexico once led the nation in terms of car fatalities related to alcohol. Today it ranks 17th — it would seem due to aggressive policies aimed at reducing drinking and driving. Although many are applauding the state's get-tough approach, some believe the dramatic shift in the state's ranking has more to do with the change in the way federal authorities count the deaths.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

To New Mexico now, a state that appears to have made great strides when it comes to reducing drunk driving. New Mexico used to have one of the worst records in the country and that has changed. State government credits new restrictions put on drunk driving offenders for the improvement. But it may have more to do with how the government keeps the statistics.

Sarah Gustavus of member station KUNM explains.

SARAH GUSTAVUS: New Mexico spent years on the list of the top 10 worst states for drunk driving deaths nationwide. It even hit number one in the early '90s. Now the state's known for a different number one. It's the first state in the nation that requires that ignition interlock devices be installed on the cars of every single convicted drunk driver.

(Soundbite of installation)

GUSTAVUS: Toby Grund installs the devices at Active Interlock in Albuquerque.

(Soundbite of a beeping)

Mr. TOBY GRUND (Active Interlock): See, that'll beep at you. Say, please wait. Then it'll ask for a sample.

Unidentified Woman: Please provide sample.

GUSTAVUS: A box is attached through wires into the steering wheel. Drivers have to blow into a tube on the device to measure if they have any alcohol in their body. I'd they're over a set limit, the car won't start. In some cases, even cough syrup could set it off.

Mr. GRUND: And then if everything's all good…

Unidentified Woman: You may start the vehicle.

Mr. GRUND: …it'll let you start.

(Soundbite of car starting)

GUSTAVUS: Five years ago, New Mexico had more than 200 drunk driving fatalities a year. That was a big deal for a state with only about two million residents. Governor Bill Richardson appointed Rachel O'Connor as the state's first DWI, or Drunk Driving Czar. She's still the only state DWI czar in the country. O'Connor says the mandatory ignition interlock law was passed as the state was also ramping up law enforcement patrols and public awareness campaigns.

Mr. RACHEL O'CONNOR (DWI Czar): It's one tool that I think has helped in New Mexico. It's not a be-all-end-all to the issue of drunk driving, but I think it's one thing that's been effective here. And we've been excited about it.

GUSTAVUS: Dr. Richard Roth is director of Impact DWI in New Mexico, a nonprofit advocacy group. He helped push for interlock laws.

Dr. RICHARD ROTH (Director, Impact DWI): And interlock is like a 24/7 probation officer in the front seat of an offender's vehicle that says you can't drive this thing unless I smell your breath and that you're sober.

GUSTAVUS: And the device not only stops the car from working, it also generates a report on the incident to the offender's probation officer or judge. There are close to 10,000 interlocks installed in the state right now. And Roth says the devices have already helped to bring down re-arrest rates.

Dr. ROTH: Most people know somebody who's had an interlock. And certainly everybody who's a heavy drinker knows somebody who has had an interlock. And to the extent that the general public doesn't want to have to have an interlock installed in their vehicle and pay for it, you'll get a general deterrent effect.

GUSTAVUS: Eleven states now have mandatory ignition interlock laws. But not everyone who's working to stop drunk drivers is happy with the attention interlocks are getting.

Ms. LINDA ATKINSON (Director, DWI Resource Center): I feel that it's a great tool, but it is not the panacea and the golden bullet that it's being sold as.

GUSTAVUS: That's Linda Atkinson, director of the DWI Resource Center in Albuquerque, another advocacy group. Atkinson says New Mexico's drop in the national rankings from 7th to 17th doesn't tell the whole story. In the '90s, states were ranked by how many people died in drunk driving crashes, compared to how many people lived in the state or per capita.

Now the federal government compares deaths to the average number of miles people drive on the highway every year. And New Mexicans drive a lot. It's not unusual for some people to drive 50 miles to the grocery store. Also, Atkinson says the new national ranking left out pedestrian deaths, like people who are drunk and wander into traffic. That's a problem here, too.

What this all means is that when the state was praised for moving down to 17th, it was actually still in the bottom 10 for per capita deaths.

Ms. ATKINSON: That's a very strong indication that we have not handled this problem. We still have a ways to go. We still have a battle to fight.

GUSTAVUS: New Mexico's drunk driving czar Rachel O'Connor says drunk driving deaths are going down, both in terms of miles driven and per capita. Still, she recognizes the issue Atkinson raises, but, she says…

Ms. O'CONNOR: We get our federal money from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Their top 10 is determined by motor vehicles traveled.

GUSTAVUS: And the state uses that money for its anti-drunk driving programs. Interestingly, when New Mexico moved off the list of the top 10 worst states for drunk driving fatalities, it lost a bonus it got from the federal government to combat the problem - an extra $1.5 million in federal money.

For NPR News, I'm Sarah Gustavus.

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