ALBUQUERQUE – More people are dying on New Mexico highways this year, with state statistics showing a 25 percent jump in traffic deaths during the first nine months of 2012.
Deaths from alcohol-related crashes are also up by 20 percent this year. Alcohol played a role in about 40 percent of the state’s 296 traffic deaths. Figures compiled by the New Mexico Department of Transportation show pedestrian deaths and crashes that killed people above age 70 led the increase in fatalities.
Department of Transportation Planning Division Director Michael Sandoval told The Albuquerque Journal that the department is watching the numbers closely. “Overall fatalities definitely are up. And, of course, one year doesn’t make a trend, but that’s obviously something that’s concerning,” he said.
Pedestrian deaths jumped from 27 for the first nine months last year to 47 this year, while the number of senior citizens killed in traffic accidents increased from 23 to 35 for the same period.
There is no single explanation for the increase, and it may mirror a national trend. An early estimate from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in July found a “significant increase” of about 13.5 percent in U.S. traffic deaths for the first quarter of 2012.
State Police Chief Robert Shilling said the fatalities on New Mexico roadways haven’t gone unnoticed by his agency.
“I do know that in the southeastern part of the state we have had a heck of a time this year,” Shilling said. “The numbers have increased dramatically, and what we’re seeing is in the vast majority of those are rollover accidents with unbelted drivers and a lot of them from out of state.”
Seat belts, he said, “are just a continual issue for us on rural highways. People fall asleep and roll over. Or maybe they’re texting and roll over, and they probably would have walked away from the crash except that they didn’t have on a seat belt.”
State police are understaffed in the region, he said. For example, the typical strength for the State Police in the Hobbs area in years past has been two sergeants and 10 patrolmen. That’s dropped to one sergeant and three patrolmen, Shilling said.
“I’m not saying we’re the only game in town, but we’re one of the agencies in that tri-county area down there that is actively and aggressively out on the highways enforcing traffic laws, and we’re doing it with very few people.”
The Sandoval said there’s a correlation between traffic deaths and the number of officers patrolling the highways.
A New Mexico legislative finance committee report found that fewer traffic checkpoints and saturation patrols – a result of uncertainties in federal funding – were a potential cause of the increase in traffic deaths.
Those increased police efforts are typically funded by the federal government, but often, the state has more money available than officers to do the enforcement, Sandoval said.