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How a drunk driver inspired Sen. Luján to back anti-DWI technology

A close encounter makes this legislative push personal for New Mexico senator

Sen. Ben Ray Luján survived a head-on collision with a drunk driver in 1992.
Sen. Ben Ray Luján survived a head-on collision with a drunk driver in 1992. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Sen. Ben Ray Luján said he was about 20 years old when a pair of headlights altered the trajectory of his life.

It was 1992. Luján, D-N.M., recalls he was staying with his parents during a summer break from the University of New Mexico. He said he was about a half-mile from home, coming back from a basketball tournament game in his Toyota Celica, when he rounded a bend and was hit head-on by a drunk driver who had veered far into his lane.

He said he remembers opening his eyes after the collision, the smoky car, adrenaline pumping through his veins, the disconcerting feeling of trying to figure out if he was OK.

It’s not a story Luján, now 48, often tells publicly, despite the fact that he’s been in the public eye for 17 years, including 12 in the House of Representatives.

He is, after all, lucky: He is alive.

But these days, he has been compelled to take that story off the shelf and confront it.

In April, he and Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., introduced a bill that would promote the research and development of advanced alcohol detection technology and require auto manufacturers to implement it in new car models.

A House version of that bill, spearheaded by Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., was included in a larger infrastructure package that passed the House last year but went nowhere in the Senate. Dingell has reintroduced that bill this year.

Many cars already have technology such as driver-monitoring systems that can help prevent drunken driving crashes. In some cases, it’s as easy as coding the automobile’s computers to stop a driver acting erratically.

But auto manufacturers have been reluctant to make them a standard feature on all vehicles — a fact that is an outrage to Ken Snyder, executive director of the Shingo Institute at Utah State University.

Snyder lost his daughter, Katie Snyder Evans, a mother of six, in 2017 when she was hit by a drunk driver while returning home from a hospital visit with her premature twin girls.

“Many of these technologies are available,” he said, adding that the U.S. loses about 10,000 people a year to alcohol and impaired driving accidents. “We’re not going to get off this plateau until we start using technology in this way.”

Many new automobiles come equipped with external monitoring, which can detect if a car is veering into the wrong lane or speeding. Others, such as Volvo, come with internal driver monitoring systems that can determine if a driver’s eyes are off the road or if the driver’s head seems to be bobbing. In some cases, automobiles are also rigged with the technology to pull over when they detect impaired drivers.

Automakers have also developed but not employed passive technology to detect alcohol.

Demanding more

But at a Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation subcommittee hearing in April, John Bozzella, CEO and president of the Alliance for Automotive Innovation, stopped short of endorsing Luján’s bill, saying instead he looks forward to working with Luján.

That answer didn’t satisfy Luján.

“This is easy, and this technology exists today,” Luján replied. “There’s no reason that the United States of America can’t lead, that we can’t save more lives.”

Luján then brought up his own experience, one of 362 alcohol-involved crashes that occurred in Santa Fe County that year.

“Mr. Bozzella, have you ever been hit by a drunk driver?” Luján asked. Bozzella said no.

“I have,” Luján continued. “I got hit head-on by a drunk driver 29 years ago, and there were many nights that I would be driving home after that accident, or driving anywhere, and all I would see were headlights coming at me. And it scared me to death. [I] couldn’t sleep many nights.”

Alex Otte, the president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, said she found out about Luján’s accident earlier this year during a Zoom meeting with MADD advocates from New Mexico, at around the time Luján had signed on as a sponsor of the bill after the retirement of Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M. Lujan replaced Udall in the Senate this year.

He didn’t start by telling his story, she said, but listened quietly as advocate after advocate told theirs.

Otte, who lost a leg and had other severe injuries after an intoxicated boater ran her over when she was 13, briefly summarized what she had gone through. Then, finally, Luján talked about his accident.

“Alex, you’re the only one who’s going to understand this,” he told her, “but I still see headlights in my nightmares.”

“That conversation changed everything for me because he gets it,” Otte said. “He’s not here because we asked him to be here. He’s here because he wants to be here.”

After the collision, Luján said he extricated himself from the vehicle, walking over in shock to check on the other driver, who was unconscious, slumped over the steering wheel.

Then there was a moment of panic when Luján saw a car seat in the back of the vehicle. Luján was suddenly terrified that a child had been in the car. He scanned the area, looking for a child who might’ve been thrown from the car, terror mingling with the adrenaline from the crash.

Thankfully, there was no child in the car.

After that, he walked to a neighbor’s house and knocked on the door, asking them to call the police.

As he walked back to the car, he said he remembers the other driver coming to.

“Look at what you did to me,” Luján said the driver’s first words to him were. Luján told the driver he’d called the police. The man, knowing he’d be in trouble, stumbled off before the police arrived. They later found the man, who told police his family members had beaten him up.

“No,” Luján said he told police. “He was the person who hit me.”

That was the end of that night. But it was also the beginning.

Twenty-nine years later, Luján said he doesn’t remember what happened to the man. He doesn’t even know if he went to jail.

“I just wanted to get better,” he said, saying he spent the days after the accident dealing with whiplash and trauma.

His was one of 5,365 drunken driving crashes in the state that year. In all, nearly 11 percent of all the crashes that occurred in the state in 1992 involved alcohol. That year, 274 people died in alcohol-involved crashes, according to the New Mexico Department of Transportation.

He said he didn’t need to be hospitalized after the accident, but he did have to see a physical therapist for whiplash. And then there was the trauma, the realization that that crash could’ve turned out very differently.

“I got lucky,” Luján says today. “I’m here to tell that story today.”

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