Santa Fe New Mexican Op-Ed

Santa Fe New Mexican


Jennifer Buntz
Published: December 27, 2011

Sept. 7, 2007, saw James Quinn and his wife, Ashley, out for a bicycle ride from Albuquerque toward Tijeras on old Route 66. They were on the shoulder, well out of the traffic lane, another group of cyclists just behind them. Angela Browning, 19, was driving in the same direction when she struck the couple, killing James, 28, and injuring Ashley.

Apparently Browning saw the group behind the Quinns, moving left to pass them, but did not see James and Ashley. In her written statement to Bernalillo County sheriff’s officers, Browning said, “I was going about 60 mph and swerved off the road. I didn’t even see him.” Browning was found guilty of careless driving and failure to maintain the lane, paying $310 in fines and $213 in court costs.

As participants in the Sept. 26, 2009, Tour de Ruidoso bicycle ride, John and Liz Mazzola, 59 and 56 at the time of this crash, were lawfully riding their tandem northbound on N.M. 48, part of the tour route. Phillip Berryhill, 56, was southbound on N.M. 48, getting ready to make a left, when he collided with the tandem riders. The Mazzolas were both severely injured in this crash with John spending 17 days fighting for his life in intensive care at University Hospital. John and Liz will struggle every day just to accomplish normal tasks because of the injuries they sustained.

Berryhill was cited with “failure to yield,” but the $71 in fines was deferred, so that by not being cited for any additional traffic violations in the next 90 days, Berryhill paid nothing.

Think about it for a moment. What is the life of a wife or husband, child or parent worth? What value do we place on our own lives?

On Sept. 22, 2011, David Chavez, 43, was riding a motorcycle westbound on Candelaria Road NE in Albuquerque. Isaac Wright, 69, wanted to make a left turn onto Candelaria from Stanford. For reasons unknown, he pulled out directly in front of Chavez, who, although he braked hard, hit the side of Wright’s Hyundai, flew through the air and crashed to his death.

A similar crash claimed the life of bicyclist Dan Montoya, 53, on May 12. In this instance, Montoya, riding lawfully on the shoulder of eastbound Tramway Boulevard, was struck by a westbound car. Bruce Wickensburg, 78, also for unknown reasons, crossed the center line, veered onto the shoulder and killed Montoya.

Although both of these cases are being pursued by the Bernalillo County District Attorney’s Office, the greatest possible penalty these two drivers face for taking a life is up to a $300 fine, 90 days of probation or jail time, or both, pending a “careless driving” conviction. Why? Under current New Mexico law, the charge of “homicide by vehicle” doesn’t apply. If a victim suffers severe bodily injury or death and the driver who caused the crash was driving in a “reckless” manner or intoxicated, then the charge applies. “Homicide by vehicle” is not applicable under current New Mexico law when the circumstances of the crash are “careless” rather than “reckless.”

There are examples of states where the laws have been amended to address crashes that result in death or great bodily harm, but were not the result of “reckless” driving. Colorado legislation enacted in 2010, Careless Driving Resulting in Death, increased the number of points added to a driver’s license from four to 12 upon conviction, which is enough for drivers’ license revocation. Traffic code in Montana also has a special provision for enhanced punishment options when careless driving results in death or serious bodily injury, upping the maximum fine from $100 to $5,000 and possible jail time not to exceed six months, or both.

Add to this the release on Dec. 13, a recommendation from the National Traffic Safety Board to ban all cellphone use, even hands-free, by drivers across the country, and you start to get a picture of the national trend toward holding drivers more accountable. We invite all road users to join us in challenging New Mexico to step-up and protect all of us now, on the forefront of this movement rather than ignoring the issue and again coming up at the bottom of yet another list.

Consult to see what you can do to move this careless driving penalty initiative forward.

Jennifer Buntz is president, Duke City Wheelmen Foundation in Albuquerque.