The long, slow battle against DWI

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By Sherry Robinson

As long as people drive to bars, we’ll have drunks causing accidents.

Those were the words of a UNM sociology professor I used to work with who was an expert on DWI.

This year, like every other year in memory, the Legislature will tackle DWI. The governor has proposed some strict new measures to “defeat this problem once and for all.”

Once and for all. Brave words.

Thanks to the state’s public servants, lawmakers, cops, Mothers Against Drunk Driving and other reformers – and some public restraint – we’re making progress. Lately, we’ve dropped off the top-ten list of DWI fatalities for the first time – New Mexico was a shameful first in 1996 – but DWI still casts a long shadow even when we’re 11th.

If it seems like progress is agonizingly slow, take the long view. From 1975 to 1977, New Mexico had the worst drinking problem in the nation, according to the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, which measured per-capita deaths from cirrhosis of the liver, alcoholism, and booze-fueled traffic accidents, homicides and suicides.

Three counties in those years were among the top 10 nationally: McKinley (2nd), Guadalupe (8th) and Rio Arriba (10th).  

So a ranking of 11th really is a big deal, all things considered.

Now take the longer, historical view. In researching my next book, I’ve spent a lot of time hunting through archival army records. The number of courts martial related to drunkenness is surprising. It’s an old problem and, if anything, used to be much worse.

You don’t have to look hard to find history’s drunks.

Brig. Gen. Henry Hopkins Sibley invaded New Mexico with his army of Texans, intending to take the state for the Confederacy. Sibley was drunk pretty much the entire time he was here, and Union forces ultimately defeated the Confederates here. Had Sibley been sober, history might read differently.

Lawrence Murphy, one of the Lincoln County War’s best known bad guys, was an alcoholic who reportedly drank himself to death. Lt. Col. Nathan Dudley, another alcoholic, was commanding officer at Fort Stanton when he ignored an act of Congress and led a detachment of troops into Lincoln, tipping the balance of a battle between the two sides.

And since everyone is so fond of remembering Geronimo lately, remember that liquor did what thousands of bullets couldn’t. Still a prisoner of war in February 1908, he fell off his horse while drunk and lay in the cold all night, contracting pneumonia, which killed him.

Read your local history and you’ll likely find that one of the first establishments in town was a saloon, often in a tent.

Today our Sibleys, Murphys and Dudleys include businessmen, politicians, priests, entertainers and athletes. When yet another study tells us about the cost of alcohol abuse (993 lives and nearly $2.5 billion in lost productivity, medical expenses and property loss in 2006, according to the state Health Department), it still doesn’t measure the muddled thinking and poor decisions that have played out in personal or financial disasters.

UNM historian Jake Spidle once wrote, “The tradition of liberal alcohol use is part of the warp and woof of this nation’s history… It’s only slightly hyperbolic to suggest that the founding fathers defied the British, fought the revolution, established the republic and began the taming of the wilderness while loaded.” A friend once warned Thomas Jefferson that we were becoming “a nation of sots.”

The war against alcohol abuse and DWI is a very slow war because alcohol itself is as well established in our state as bindweed. But many of the remedies are working – ignition interlocks, toll-free reporting of drunk drivers, education of alcohol servers, police road blocks and the commercials (especially the latest one).

This holiday season, eat (heart-healthy foods), drink (in moderation) and be merry (if you can).

© New Mexico News Services 2009