It is easy, especially when you are sitting at a red light watching cars blow by, to believe traffic scofflaws get a free pass in Albuquerque.
The pandemic certainly did not help. Albuquerque Police Department Deputy Chief Michael Smathers says “a recklessness and wanton disregard kind of came to light during COVID.” Enforcement was affected by not only the perennial challenge of staffing APD, but also public health concerns and less-congested roads during shutdowns that led to a bit of a free-for-all.
It was a deadly combination.
Cmdr. Joseph Viers of the Traffic Division says there’s a direct correlation between the drop in citations issued – from 55,819 in 2019 to 39,219 in 2020 to 36,431 last year – and the rise in fatal traffic crashes – from 55 in 2019 to 76 in 2020 to a record 85 last year.
But that was then, as they say, and this is now. Smathers says “we don’t want to set another (fatality) record. It really troubles us to have those numbers.” APD officers have to “make those family notifications, (and it’s) really heartbreaking.”
So while the department continues to work on bolstering its ranks of sworn officers, the brass in charge of making city streets safer want you to know they are also collaborating with other divisions within APD, overlaying crash and crime data to get the most bang for your crime-fighting buck, and writing a lot more citations.
To be precise, 2,534 more tickets from Jan. 1 to Feb. 7 this year compared with last, for a total of 7,485.
Smathers explains that while some readers have reported they never see traffic stops, it doesn’t mean there is not enforcement going on. “Any traffic enforcement that we do is always intelligence driven, data driven. Any of the locations that we emphasize, any of the operations and the tac plans that we do, are always driven by data” that includes everything from fatalities and speeding to DWI and citizen complaints.
Case in point, on Feb. 15, APD tweeted, the Motors Unit ran a traffic operation at Montaño and Renaissance that netted 81 stops, 54 speeding citations and 135 other tickets (think no seat belt, no insurance, expired tags, talking on a cellphone, etc.). Viers says “we’ve really stepped it up on enforcement” and “buckled down on traffic safety.”
Viers says speeding remains the No. 1 citation, and Motors Unit Lt. Nick Wheeler shares that since the pandemic Coors is now known as “the racetrack of Albuquerque.” Though the speed limit is posted at 45 mph, “we have vehicles traveling in excess of 80 mph,” he says. “Every day.” And going 80, 90, 100 mph on Gibson, Paseo del Norte, Unser, Montgomery and even residential streets on a very regular basis. Racing and loud exhaust have become bigger issues since 2020, Viers says, affecting safety and quality of life. “We’ve also increased careless and reckless driving” citations, he says.
With 20 Motor and seven DWI officers making traffic safety their priority, the Traffic Division and Motors Unit are also busy overlaying crash data with crime data, “and when there are commonalities, which there are,” Smathers says, “we utilize an approach where Traffic is going to be trying to impact both” crashes and crime by providing a visible presence, whether it’s the recent Central crackdowns on ATV drivers on the streets illegally or in areas where auto thefts or burglaries have been happening.
Smathers, Viers and Wheeler say this year will bring more traffic enforcement, including targeting speeding on the highways through town. To increase visibility Smathers says “we are breaking down our problematic corridors into more manageable sections” and have “added a second squad of our motorcycle officers working in the mid- to late-evening hours to specifically address issues we’ve seen.” Mobile speed enforcement, aka speed cameras, are on the way, and the department will continue to use various methods – from social media to drones to the air unit – to find and track traffic scofflaws and racers.
So while readers have shared they have never seen a traffic stop in Albuquerque, APD says thousands more are happening. And more are on the way.
Editorial page editor D’Val Westphal tackles commuter issues for the metro area on Mondays. Reach her at 823-3858; firstname.lastname@example.org; or 7777 Jefferson NE, Albuquerque, NM, 87109.