Copyright © 2023 Albuquerque Journal
Karen Miller said sometimes she can’t sleep at night – and when she does, she often wakes up crying. Seven months later, she still can’t believe her son is gone.
Kevin Sanchez, 39, was walking on the sidewalk near Old Town when an alleged drunken driver hopped the curb and hit him. Police said the driver removed his license plate and fled the scene.
Of the 337 people struck by drivers in the Albuquerque area last year, Sanchez was one of dozens who didn’t survive their injuries.
Pedestrian fatalities around the city – and the state, in general – dipped slightly last year after reaching a record high in 2021.
But that’s little consolation to the families.
Miller told the Journal she just wants her son back.
She remembered when the family, which is in real estate, brought Sanchez along to a conference out of state. He told everyone he was the number one Realtor in Albuquerque, though Sanchez had no steady job.
The laughter quickly gives way to reality.
“Everyone says it gets easier with time, but it’s not getting easier. It’s getting harder for me, because I miss him,” Miller said, breaking down into tears.
Data from local authorities show a total of 40 people were struck and killed in Albuquerque and the unincorporated Bernalillo County in 2022, down from 49 in 2021.
The majority of the fatal crashes last year, 33, happened within city limits and five of those were investigated by State Police.
Across the state, 93 people were fatally struck by drivers in 2022, down from 103 the year before. Prior to 2021, the highest death toll tallied by the New Mexico Department of Transportation was 88 people killed by drivers in 1995.
The number of pedestrian fatalities on Albuquerque’s streets has been rising since 2010 when the city ended the year with seven. Since 2018, the total has fluctuated between 30 and 49 people killed annually.
The Governors Highway Safety Association, meanwhile, has ranked New Mexico as the deadliest state for pedestrians in 2021, and every year since 2016.
The GHSA has not released 2022 data.
Sgt. Christopher Rody, with the Albuquerque Police Department’s Traffic Unit, attributed the drop in fatal pedestrian crashes in its jurisdiction, from 35 in 2021 to 33 in 2022, to handing out more citations.
He said the unit issued around 36,000 traffic tickets last year, up from around 18,000 in 2021. Those totals do not include the almost 26,000 citations issued by speed cameras installed in 2022.
Rody said he believed the citations – and more police presence – changed driver behavior.
“We had a great year last year, and we’re trying to push for even a better year this year,” he said. “… The less fatals that we can get, that makes us happy. Because, one, we’re not going out in the middle of the night to deal with it, but, two, we know the city’s being safer.”
Rody said the “ultimate goal” is to get all road fatalities as low as possible.
In 2022, much of the crash circumstances mirrored previous years.
The number of people fatally struck on highways around the city continued to spike in 2022, with 11 people killed along Interstate 25 and Interstate 40.
In 2021, 2020 and 2018, there were nine, seven and eight, respectively, killed along the city’s highways. In 2019, no one was fatally struck by vehicles along those same stretches.
The largest cluster of pedestrian deaths last year, seven, occurred in a stretch of East Central between San Mateo and Tramway. Since 2018, 31 people have been fatally struck by drivers within that stretch.
Some notoriously dangerous areas saw a slight drop.
Coors, which has tallied 21 pedestrian deaths between 2018 and 2021, saw only two people fatally struck in 2022. And Montgomery, where 12 people were killed between 2018 and 2021, saw no pedestrian deaths in 2022.
Pedestrian safety projects often move at a snail’s pace from proposal to construction but a federal grant will help upgrade one deadly area in the South Valley – a 2-mile portion of Coors, between Gun Club and Blake.
That stretch has reportedly seen 685 crashes between 2015 and 2019 and eight of them were fatal, including six pedestrians struck and killed by drivers.
The U.S. Department of Transportation awarded Bernalillo County $6.3 million that the county said will improve lighting and walkways, reduce lane width and bring other improvements to that roadway.
As for preventing deaths through enforcement, there is only so much police can do.
Rody said although they see most fatal pedestrian crashes along Central and Coors, they are a unit tasked with overseeing the entire city – close to 200 square miles.
“Manpower is one of the biggest issues,” he said. “So with the number that we have, we can only focus on certain areas at certain times. We can’t be everywhere at once.”
Albuquerque police investigated six fatal pedestrian hit-and-run crashes last year, a large drop after recording 20 in 2021. Previously, at least 15 fatal pedestrian hit-and-runs occurred between 2018 and 2020.
Rody said it’s hard to know the drivers’ circumstances in those cases.
“We don’t know if they left because they’re intoxicated, if they left because they were speeding. In the middle of the night they may not even have known they hit somebody,” he said. “It’s hard to determine where their mindset was at or what their physical ability was at that time.”
Many drivers are not found and, even when they are, face little to no punishment. That’s because police often rule the crash “pedestrian error” as the person was not in a crosswalk or didn’t have the right of way.
Such was not the case in the death of Kevin Sanchez.
His brother, Dominic Sanchez, has seen video of the crash and said Kevin had just picked up a piece of trash on the sidewalk and took a few steps before being hit.
Jonathan Sandoval, 22, is accused of removing his license plate and leaving the scene on Central at Rio Grande. Sandoval’s mother brought him back a few hours later, according to police. He was found to be intoxicated and arrested on a charge of vehicular homicide.
Sandoval has since been released pending trial.
“I feel like I’m on a life sentence because I don’t have my son,” Miller said. “What’s heartbreaking to me is I have to live with the grief every day, and it’s hurtful that he’s out walking the streets.”
One of five siblings raised in Albuquerque, Sanchez was free-spirited and strong-willed with a bad case of wanderlust – moving from New York to Las Vegas, Nevada, to Arizona before returning home.
“He was always out for an adventure,” Miller said.
Although he worked odd jobs, Miller said her son’s true passion was singing. She said several weeks before his death Sanchez quit working to focus on his music, giving up his belongings and camping out in the bosque.
“He was not the normal homeless person,” Miller said. “He told me, ‘Don’t worry, mom, it’s only going to be temporary. When it starts getting cold, I’ll come back home.'”
He pleaded with her to understand and told her he was happy.
Now she has a voicemail he left; she listens to it often. And there are the videos, making TikToks with his nephew, doing backflips in a hotel lobby, dancing with strangers at a retreat, singing “You’re simply the best” by Tina Turner with a friend on a mountain.
The family laughs watching them. Often they cry, too.
Miller said the holidays were particularly hard, Sanchez had always come home no matter where he was living, or how far.
“Every Christmas. He would come in last minute – ‘Mom, where’s your wrapping paper? Where’s the scotch tape? I need to wrap some presents,’ ” Miller said.
With tears filling her eyes, she added, “this Christmas, I don’t know if I just did it subconsciously or what but I left out the Christmas wrapping paper.”