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After investigating 85 traffic deaths in 2021 – the highest number ever recorded on Albuquerque streets – police are going to try something new: proactive traffic enforcement.
The Albuquerque Police Department announced a pilot project that will free up traffic unit officers to focus on writing tickets in hot spots for speeding during peak traffic hours.
The bottom line: Tickets make drivers think twice.
“Each one of us can probably remember … when we got a traffic ticket and how it changed how we behaved and how we drove,” APD Chief Harold Medina said at a news conference Wednesday afternoon.
Medina added that seeing officers out giving tickets will change driver behavior.
He said relying on a combination of the two to reduce crashes is “something different than we’ve done in the past.”
The pilot project will have Police Service Aides and patrol officers respond to minor crashes, which often tie up the traffic unit, so those specialized officers can saturate areas showing “patterns of speeding, racing and dangerous driving.”
To kick it off, APD had traffic officers armed with speed guns braving bitterly cold wind gusts Wednesday morning to target speeders along Interstate 25 and Interstate 40. APD spokeswoman Rebecca Atkins said they issued 134 citations in just two hours, including for a driver going nearly 100 mph.
The announcement of the pilot project came on the heels of a year that saw more traffic deaths in the city than ever before in APD records. Also in 2021, the Albuquerque area and state had the highest pedestrian death toll in recorded history, with 49 and 100 fatalities, respectively.
APD has repeatedly attributed the uptick in deadly crashes to drivers, emboldened by empty streets during COVID-19, continuing to behave recklessly after traffic returned to pre-pandemic levels.
“Last year, we had a record that we do not like to set, 85 fatal crashes, up 10 from the previous year,” Deputy Chief Michael Smathers said. “We’re trying to change that trend and bring those numbers down.”
He said there is “clearly a direct correlation” between traffic citations and traffic safety, and “the more citations we issue, the less crashes we respond to.”
Smathers said the pilot project was inspired by encouraging returns – most notably a lower call volume – from recent weekend operations along Central, which resulted in almost 2,700 citations and 38 arrests.
APD said the agency has ratcheted up enforcement citywide this year.
In January and February, according to the department, officers issued more than 7,300 citations; in that same period last year, they issued just over 3,900 citations.
APD did not provide annual citation numbers for previous years.
Deputy Chief Josh Brown said that, if PSAs and patrol officers in the field are swamped with minor crashes, the traffic unit will still be able to respond to the overflow and provide relief. He asked that drivers involved in a “minor fender bender” make a report on the online app, over the phone or at a substation when possible.
Traffic Division Commander Joseph Viers said APD will also use data to identify areas with a lot of traffic crashes and crime. Then, when they do enforcement, he said it will not only reduce crashes, but also deter criminal activity.
“We’re trying to take a two-fold approach in order to help reduce crime and also get people to drive safely,” Viers said. “… Our biggest goal is just to deter unsafe driving … and make it safe for everybody to commute to work.”
Medina said that they intend to buy every marked police unit a speed gun so officers can give citations between calls for service.
Although the current focus is on speed, he said that will change depending on the need – such as for red light and seat belt violations.
He also wanted to remind the public that, in recent years, dangerous driving has led to sometimes fatal road rage incidents.
“We’re going to continue to work this process, we hope that we will continue to see reductions in speed and that it’s going to have a trickle effect into other types of crimes, not just those … associated with speed and traffic accidents,” Medina said.