It's time for Legislature to crack down on DWI - Albuquerque Journal

It’s time for Legislature to crack down on DWI

Many New Mexicans – especially those whose families have been broken after a drunken driver needlessly took the life of a loved one – would like to see our laws governing driving while intoxicated be a lot tougher.

Especially for offenders who have done it time and again.

On the other side, some argue the laws here are plenty tough. Senate Majority Leader Michael S. Sanchez said in December that New Mexico has some of the toughest laws in the nation.

But there is evidence otherwise, besides the anecdotal kind provided by repeat offenders whose latest arrests or fatal crashes regularly pop up in the news. Last year, the personal finance website WalletHub ranked New Mexico 49th when it comes to criminal penalties for DWI.

But if you are on the we’re-too-mean side, be glad you don’t live in Germany, where even a first DWI can lead to more than a year of troubles and, apparently, the loss of a car. Germany is often cited as the poster child for tough-on-drunks laws.

But first, a few statistics:

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, drunken-driving crashes in recent years have accounted for about one-third of all traffic fatalities across the United States. In 2014, they resulted in 9,967 deaths nationwide.

In New Mexico in 2014, there were 169 alcohol-related traffic fatalities. Last year, we did better with only 118. (Only?)

But consider 2013 for New Mexico and Germany. That year, there were 311 traffic deaths in New Mexico, with 133 alcohol-related. In Germany, there were 3,540 traffic deaths, with 233 alcohol-related.

The population difference? New Mexico in 2013: 2.087 million. Germany in 2013: 80.62 million. (Germany’s traffic fatality rates are less than half those of the U.S., both by population and number of cars, according to the World Health Organization.)

The presumptive level of intoxication for adults in New Mexico is a blood alcohol concentration of 0.08 or more if you’re 21 or over. You can lose your license for a year if your BAC is higher than the legal limit or if you refuse to take the test, even if there is no conviction.

If you are found guilty of DWI in New Mexico and it is your first conviction, you can get up to 90 days in jail, a fine of up to $500, a year’s license suspension and the required use of an interlock device after you get your license back.

Sounds bad, but as a practical matter that doesn’t happen; first gets probation. Penalties increase up to the seventh conviction, when you can get up to three years in prison and up to a $5,000 fine.

Here’s some surface material on what you might face in Germany, based on my survey of several websites – mostly aimed at active military personnel who are stationed there or at tourists, students or businessmen who intend to spend time there – and some English-language references on German law.

If you are pulled over for drunken driving, you are taken to the station for a blood test. If you fail, they confiscate your driver’s license and may offer you a ride home.

That’s because they also take away your car and sell it if your BAC is above 0.11, according to several accounts. Proceeds go to a victims’ fund.

In Germany, the BAC limit is also 0.08 percent – unless an accident or other traffic violation is part of the incident in which you were arrested. In that case, it drops to 0.03 to 0.05 percent.

The fine for a first offense is 500 euros – or about $564 – and a one-month license suspension. Jail time not to exceed one year may also apply.

You might be thinking that doesn’t sound all that much worse than New Mexico, but penalties increase if the BAC is 0.11 percent or higher, even on a first offense.

At that level of intoxication, you pay a minimum fine of 1,000 euros ($1,128) and lose your license for at least one year. Again, jail time may apply.

Once a 0.11 percent or higher BAC is on your record, if you have a subsequent offense the fine and revocation period may be doubled, no matter the BAC level. The maximum imprisonment for DWI in Germany appears to be five years.

And if your license has been revoked for a 0.11 or higher offense, to get it back you must pass a dreaded exam called the Medizinisch-Psychologische Untersuchung, or MPU. The test is designed to demonstrate to the court that you have been sober for the year during which your license has been revoked and that drinking isn’t a problem for you.

The MPU process features medical exams that include blood and urine tests to prove sobriety and determine whether you have a drinking problem, and sessions with a psychologist who appears to be trying to determine if a repeat offense is likely.

Fail this test – and from 50 percent to 70 percent of those who are subjected to it reportedly do – and you could be without a driver’s license for two or more years. You have to wait four months before trying to restart the MPU process.

There are businesses in Germany that you can pay to help you prepare for the MPU. Don’t be nervous is their free advice.

Oh, and you have to foot the bill for the MPU, though I couldn’t figure out how much it costs with any certainty. It was reported that a routine first DWI offense in Germany can cost you more than 15,000 euros ($16,921), not including the car and inconvenience.

You might argue: “Yeah, but only rich people drive cars in Germany.” Then consider that bicyclists who have a BAC of 0.16 are treated the same way as if they had been driving a car, including the dreaded MPU.

In the New Mexico Legislature, several bills intending to reduce repeat drunken driving are awaiting final action. Usually, it seems, they get bottled up in the Senate.

Perhaps that can be expected in a body where criminal trial lawyers, who often represent drunken drivers in court, are in powerful positions. For them if might be a bread-and-butter issue.

But for families who have lost a loved one to a drunken driver, it’s a heart-and-soul issue.

UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to editorial page editor Dan Herrera at 823-3810 or dherrera@abqjournal.com.

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