NM officers watching for drunken drivers

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ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Law enforcement officers around New Mexico will be out in full force watching for drunken drivers through the holiday season.

The increased patrols, DWI checkpoints and constant pleas from elected officials to celebrate responsibility have become part of New Mexico's fabric as the state continues to fight the pervasive problem of drunken driving.

"Too often we hear about the pain and heartache caused by a DWI fatality around this time of year," Gov. Susana Martinez said in a statement. "Law enforcement is on the lookout for intoxicated drivers so I hope all New Mexicans will do the right thing by not drinking and driving."

New Mexico was once among the worst states in the nation for DWI-related deaths. Efforts to toughen the laws began to get serious traction following a Christmas Eve crash in 1992 in which a wrong-way drunken driver smashed head-on into a family on their way home from midnight Mass. Melanie Cravens and her three young daughters were killed, and her husband was seriously injured.

The Cravens case changed the way people in New Mexico thought about drinking and driving, and her family members were instrumental in leading the crusade to change things.

Now, New Mexico has some of the toughest penalties and greater enforcement. The number of people killed in alcohol-related accidents also has dropped dramatically since the year of the crash — from 274 down to less than 150 in 2011.

And as of mid-December, state officials say 136 people have died in alcohol-related crashed in New Mexico in 2012.

The weekend before Christmas, officers were busy setting up orange cones in preparation for DWI checkpoints on Christmas Eve. The officers are in the midst of their Winter Superblitz and drivers can expect increased patrols in addition to the checkpoints.

In Albuquerque, more than 20 officers are being assigned full time to look for drunken drivers throughout the city. Two checkpoints are planned within city limits before the end of the year.

A total of 75 people were nabbed in Bernalillo County during last year's holiday patrols.

Bernalillo County Sheriff's Capt. Greg Rees recently told the Albuquerque Journal that deputies have been seeing more charges associated with driving under the influence due to prescription drugs.

"People aren't really taking the time to think about whether their prescriptions interact with even one or two drinks," he said.

Police departments and elected officials around the state have spent the past several days encouraging people to take advantage of safe-ride programs and to use designated drivers.

Among the possible punishments facing first-time DWI offenders are 90 days in jail, a year without a driver's license, community service and installation of an ignition interlock on their vehicle for up to a year. For those with multiple DWI convictions, their vehicles can be seized, they can lose their license for good and face three years in prison.