Santa Fe prides itself on being unique, different, and well after twenty years here, I have to say it is. Driving alone will wake you up, but no, you don’t need a passport as some from the Midwest think. I do recommend a good defensive driving class though.
“Slow down, there’s a town just around the corner.” Karen lit a cigarette and calmly opened the side window in the little green Toyota truck.
I clumsily down-shifted to third. “Oh shit, you weren’t joking!” I braked, crunched gears again, and slowly we drove through Madrid, New Mexico. “I had no idea. This is cool!” My head swung from side to side, taking in the run down wooden structures, a few businesses open, and swerving around the wandering lone dogs. Karen gave me the history, a short version, it only takes a few minutes to drive from one end to another, and then we hit the open road, heading for Albuquerque. “Change gears, you should be in third up this hill.”
Such was my learning to drive in Santa Fe County in 1993. Yes, I was in my twenties and didn’t know how to drive a car, stick or automatic. I’d been a biker since sixteen, and living in Europe, you didn’t need to drive. It was too expensive anyway. A bike fit my needs just right. Here I was though, living in a cabin in the Sangre De Christo Mountains, with winter around the corner, thick snow threatening to trap me up alone. It was time to learn. Karen, my sweet friend, a calm (mostly) presence, unflustered by the crunching of gears, the panic in my eyes, she explained a few basics, put her sunglasses on, and we drove to Albuquerque on highway 14. Now, I love to drive, constantly taking huge roadtrips.
The driving test then and now is a bit of a joke too, I have to admit that I’m glad. Well, I was glad at the time. Now though, having seen so many accidents and read of so many wrong -way drivers crashing and killing others, perhaps it’s time to revisit and strengthen the standards for all drivers? Defensive driving 101?
Yes, people drive the wrong way on highways and interstates in the City Different. A plea bargain was just accepted by one such drunken driver, dating back to a crash caused in 2013. This last month alone, there were three arrests for wrong-way driving on the interstate and two deaths. Seriously?
The history of wrong-way drivers is linked to the high DWI rate in New Mexico. Put it this way, when the courts decided it was no longer a good idea to have drive-through Liquor Stores, the state was in an uproar. Not that long ago, either folks. In the last ten years, we’ve had about two serious accidents each year, all caused by those ‘buzzed’ drivers heading south in the northbound lanes, or vice versa, even one in 2009 when a driver decided to do a u-turn on the interstate. Most of these crashes have lead to aggravated DWI charges, rarely manslaughter even though so many have died as a result. Crazy isn’t it? In 2007, within a couple of months of each incident, there were two DWI wrong-way crashes. In 2008, a two car crash, one DWI charge. In June 2009, a driver with twice the legal blood alcohol limit, crashed into a car of five teenagers, killing four of them, and yes, on the wrong side of the road. In 2010, two were killed in another such crash, the driver was five times the legal limit. In 2013, a three vehicle crash occurred on the interstate after the driver had been drinking, she got confused and took the wrong lane.
The wrong lane. The left, the right, the southbound, the northbound. You’d think it’s easy to remember where to place your car, right? It’s not. Not for me anyway, my body memory fights my mind as to which side of the road I should drive on. Growing up in the UK, I learned by osmosis. Now as an adult in New Mexico, I still get confused. My 1972 Land Rover doesn’t help: it’s a right-hand drive one, that is the steering wheel is on the right. Weird to say the least when driving an empty backroad into the middle of nowhere. It’s not too bad if other traffic is around, I follow their lead. When it’s empty, I just hope I got it right.
Now though, Santa Fe County has gone beyond itself in being ‘different’. Earlier this year, the powers that be decided to work on the I25 and Hwy 14 exits. Citing concerns over potential accidents, they’ve spent 19 million revamping the area. I asked a few local EMTs and Paramedics, and no, that junction was never a problem for crashes, fatal or not. So 19 million was spent. I thought they were joking, that it was just a phase of construction, but no, they have really done it now. Oh so “City Different” they are, now we drive down Hwy 14, stop at a traffic light, cross onto the southbound left lane for 1/4 mile, then we stop at another traffic light and revert to the correct side of the road.
I’m sure it looked pretty on paper, but what were they thinking? Seriously? After all the deaths, accidents, wrong-way drivers and drunk drivers in the area? You seriously think it’s a good idea to make drivers go against their instincts and drive in the left hand lane?
It’ll be interesting to count the number of accidents bound to happen, at a junction that had not been an accident zone until now. On a snowy night? Fog? Dark sky and no street lights? Seriously? It’s bad enough for me, one who’s easily confused by right and left, I imagine other visitors coming to that junction at night, unprepared to enjoy the lovely sweeping curves and gentle landscape, and fight the urge to stay in the correct lane. Me too, what if I’m tired? I can’t see the road ahead?
On another note, I thought I’d take the Land Rover down to town and grab some groceries before nightfall. Although, the turn signals died last week. It’s okay though, this is New Mexico, right? Anything goes as far as driving in the City Different. Or am I then part of the problem?