New DWI-detection tech might alter the law’s disproportionate impacts

DWI punishments are unevenly applied, more often to people of color who have lower incomes, research shows

By: - November 11, 2021 5:45 am

Sobriety check points are currently one way police officers try to keep impaired drivers off the road. New detection technology could help eliminate driving while intoxicated. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

A mandate for technology in new vehicles that can pull over if the driver is impaired by alcohol was rolled into the infrastructure bill on its way to President Joe Biden. 

That means once the U.S. National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration figures out the regulations in the next couple of years, all new cars and trucks will be rolling off the lot outfitted with anti-DWI tech. 

Though New Mexico might be slower than some states to buy brand-new cars, in 20 years when most vehicles here have the technology, DWI in the state will be radically reduced, and fatalities from such wrecks could become a thing of the past, said state Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas. 

The technology might also slow the disproportionate impacts of DWI offenses on communities of color and people with low incomes.

This is the second part in a two-part series about the DWI detection tech. Find the first part here.

About 1.5 million people are arrested each year for driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs. That means that one out of every 121 licensed drivers are arrested for drunk driving annually, according to the highway administration. 

New Mexico has one of the most strict DWI laws in the nation, Maestas said. 

“We were the most aggressive state in the country requiring ignition interlocks on a first offense,” Maestas said. “We passed a real draconian bill where if you completed all requirements from a DWI conviction in another state, you still were required to get an interlock when moving to New Mexico.”

Maestas said that’s just one example of how heavy-handed New Mexico’s interlock laws are. 

Class and race breakdown

DWI arrests are meant to deter impaired driving but the punitive aspects are disproportionately applied, according to researchers.

People with low incomes and members of marginalized communities, such as people of color and or people who are unhoused, experience greater alcohol-related consequences, according to a 2016 study in the journal Alcohol Research.

However, people with low incomes drink at lower rates than people with more resources and money, according to a study in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Review.

There was more variation in how much people drank if they had lower incomes, with some drinking heavily and others not drinking at all, researchers found. On the other hand, people with higher incomes were more likely to drink overall but hid it better, NPR reported.

New Mexico charges those convicted of DWI an additional fee that goes to an indigent ignition interlock fund for people who can’t afford court-ordered interlocks. The fund accumulated to $2.2 million, according to the NM Legislative Finance Committee, but Maestas said the fund has largely not been spent to cover the costs for those who have needed it. 

Those who don’t have the resources to retain an attorney, or pay the fines and associated fees that come with a DWI conviction — including installation and maintenance of an ignition interlock — often experience the longest sentences, said David Jernigan, a national expert in alcohol-related public health outcomes and a professor at Boston University.

“If you’re poor and you drink, the consequences are going to be much worse,” Jernigan said. “And extend that to consequences — extend that to things like drinking and driving — and then look at the structure of enforcement in your state, and you’ll see disparities.”

By the numbers

DWI is responsible for just 4.6% of all vehicle accidents in New Mexico but accounts for about 40% of all fatal crashes, according to the 2019 NM DWI report.

The  “advanced vehicle technology standard” included in the infrastructure bill is expected to prevent more than 9,400 drunk-driving deaths annually, according to a 2020 study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

Injuries from DWI nationwide are more than 300,000 every year, according to the Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) website

The estimated economic impact of alcohol-impaired driving is severe, and estimated at $44 billion, according to a 2013 study in the Association for the Advancement of Automotive Medicine journal.

Tomas Cabildo, a resident of Santa Fe, was willing to go on the record about his DWI conviction and court-ordered interlock. Cabildo said he was lucky that the monthly interlock fees weren’t impossible for him to pay and that in his case, getting an interlock didn’t impact his job too negatively even though he wasn’t able to do deliveries anymore because the company’s cars don’t have the interlock. 

“I was already heading towards a management sort of position. So this kind of just expedited it,” Cabildo said. 

That’s not the case for many New Mexicans. 

Inconvenience and privacy concerns

One of the concerns advocates said they are sensitive to is the fear that some people might perceive anti-DWI technology as government intrusion into their day-to-day driving experience.

“If you’re going to do an intervention that is supposed to be — what we call in public health a ‘passive intervention,’ that is, it protects people without them having to do anything — you had better do it in a way that it’s acceptable to the public,” Jernigan said. 

Community members protested when automatic seatbelts — the kind that slide up the door frame electronically — were mandated back in the 1980’s, Jernigan said.

“They put something in the car that was so cumbersome, and that people just rebelled against it,” he said. “We can’t do that.”

State Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, a former DWI prosecutor, said the advanced vehicle technology standard could seriously decrease DWI-related fatalities but gave a word of caution regarding the privacy concerns the federal government will have to address when selecting the required technology.

“We always have to watch out for privacy issues when the cool tech solutions come along,” Ivey-Soto said. “Given how all the new cars are connected to the internet, the privacy concern is if that data is retained in the car, delivered to the car-maker for product improvement, or made available to law enforcement or other government authorities, that could be problematic.”

The Department of Transportation will not yet comment on how the privacy, accuracy and safety concerns will be addressed. 

Carlos Monje Jr, the federal undersecretary of transportation policy, said during a national news conference on Tuesday that the agency will not be rushing the rule-making process for the DWI technology requirements.  

The agency is going to make sure “we move deliberately and have sustained safety improvements,” Monje said. 

The National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration will hold a notice and comment period, he said, and pledges to work with both industry and safety advocates throughout the rule-making process. 

Eric Martinez is the brother of Andrew Martinez, better known as Wake Self, a well-loved and much-respected Albuquerque hip-hop artist. Wake Self was killed by a drunk driver in 2019. 

Eric Martinez says the sooner new cars are equipped with the technology, the sooner there will be a culture shift in the way people approach drinking in public. 

“If it was a case where someone had a BAC over the legal limit and got into a car, and the car wasn’t physically able to start, well, then maybe next time they will think about having to plan out their night a little bit better,” Martinez said, “think about rideshare apps or taxi cabs and things like that. And that could potentially save a life. To me, that’s worth it.”


This is the second part in a two-part series about the alcohol detection tech. Hear more from Eric Martinez and learn about what the technology can do in the first article here.


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Lissa Knudsen
Lissa Knudsen

Lissa Knudsen was the news editor at the New Mexico Daily Lobo, following a stint as the publication’s public health beat reporter. She also worked as a data analyst for local NPR affiliate KUNM News. Her areas of coverage include politics and policy with an emphasis on racial and gender equity. Knudsen holds a bachelor's degree in health science and a master's degree in program planning and health education. She’s a critical cultural communication doctoral candidate, emphasizing reproductive justice, maternity and health. She is a board member of the New Mexico Public Health Association. Before she realized she was supposed to be a journalist, Knudsen was involved in local politics up until mid-2014, getting into hot water with her bosses as she pushed for transparency and public accountability.