D  e  s  e  r  t     E  x  p  o  s  u  r  e      february 2005

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Land of Intoxication

Does drunk driving have to be as characteristically New Mexican as chile peppers, the zia and the whiptail lizard?

Why does New Mexico have such a drunk-driving problem? As I researched this issue's exhaustive—and, I hope, not too exhausting—report on the pros and cons of DWI checkpoints, I also kept asking this question.

Because, whatever you think about the effectiveness of checkpoints, there's no debating that New Mexico does have a problem. Even though the state recently climbed to sixth-worst in per capita DWI crash fatalities, that doesn't obscure the fact that we ranked worst or second-worst seven times between 1990 and 2002. Or that fatal crashes in New Mexico are 38 percent more likely to involve drunk driving than the US average. We also rank first in deaths from cirrhosis of the liver.

Those aren't the sort of statistics you exactly want to trumpet. Nobody wants the signs at the state line to read, "Welcome to New Mexico, Land of Drunk Drivers."


Linda Atkinson, founder and director of the DWI Resource Center in Albuquerque (which does the state a huge service in its laser-like focus on DWI—even though some might disagree with its enthusiasm for checkpoints), recalls moving to New Mexico from Kansas City 30-some years ago and being "blown away" by the DWI problem here. She blames a "Wild West mentality" and "an attitude of self-righteousness" for the underlying mindset that, heck, it's OK to drink and drive. She cites as an example the six-year struggle to ban open containers of alcohol in vehicles. During that debate, a high-ranking state legislator told her, in all seriousness, that it was his "right" to drive with an open container of booze.

(A similar mindset, one might even say, has made New Mexico one of only two states in the nation that still allows cockfighting. Once again this legislative session, you'll no doubt hear arguments that this brutal exercise in animal cruelty is "a way of life" and "part of our heritage." Some parts of America's heritage—slavery and child labor are other examples that spring to mind—are better abandoned.)

Tito Meyer, in his "People's Law" column also in this issue about brain injuries all too often caused by DWI accidents, notes the common practice of "stocking up" for a road trip with a six-pack per person.

As this issue's in-depth report points out, unless we can effect some rapid attitude adjustments, New Mexico's DWI woes are only going to get worse. It's a matter of pure demographics: The segments of the population most prone to drinking and driving will be growing faster in the next decade than the state's population as a whole.

That will make it harder still to resist the well-intentioned arguments of checkpoint advocates, or even such draconian and wildly misguided measures as last year's proposal to install ignition interlocks on all New Mexicans' cars. (The fact that the ignition-interlock bill's sponsor, Rep. Ken Martinez, is the House Majority Leader should give one pause about the judgment of that body's Democratic majority.)

But we should not be too quick to give up our freedoms, even in a cause that seems worthy, even in a crisis. Much as the Patriot Act swept in on the national level in a wave of hysteria over terrorism, it's all too easy to let concern over very real threats override the brakes built into our Constitution. It's even worse when those dubious measures don't actually match the danger, or do little to advance our safety while doing much to reduce our liberty.

I'm sure that this issue's lead story will bring letters from those whose loved ones have been the tragic victims of drunk driving, letters saying I just don't understand. No one can understand who has not stood in their shoes. We can only sympathize—but sympathy is not a prudent basis for public policy, and we do those victims a disservice if we let sympathy and emotion drive us to measures that do not accurately address the problem.

I'm sure that if I had lost a loved one to the scourge of drunk driving, I would be at the head of the line demanding action. I'd have little patience for the cautions of civil libertarians. I'd be eager to target all drivers, to make sure we got those who might drive drunk, and I'd even look hard at alcohol itself. Maybe Prohibition wasn't such a bad idea, after all. . . .

But I'd be wrong.

Besides enacting measures to get tough on DWI offenders and working to improve both arrest and conviction numbers, we need to find a way to change attitudes—whatever it is that lets some folks think it's still OK to drink and drive. That's much harder and less immediately satisfying than punishing the guilty (or, as with measures like universal ignition interlocks, the innocent). Worse, we've already tried scaring people to alter their attitudes, and that seems to have exhausted its effectiveness.

We need to start talking to the next generation of drivers—and by "talking" I don't mean preaching, scaring, threatening or any other tactics that young people simply tune out. We need to figure out the answer to my question—why does New Mexico have such a drunk-driving problem?—before tomorrow's New Mexico drivers hit the road. Otherwise there will be a lot more of us—and a lot of those young people—among the victims.


David A. Fryxell is editor of Desert Exposure.

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