Driving in New Mexico
Prepare to be awed as you get behind the wheel, buckle up and drive through New Mexico, also known as the Land of Enchantment.
This state lives up to its nickname, says Kage Spatz, an entrepreneur living in California who recently spent several weeks driving through New Mexico. After entering the state at night via Arizona, he took Interstate 40 to Albuquerque. "Despite being the biggest highway option, the road was very dark at night," he says, adding that he saw a "remarkable" number of stars in the sky.
Later, the trip on Interstate 25 from Albuquerque to Santa Fe made for a "quick, beautiful day trip." However, if you want to take a slower and more scenic route between those two cities, you can venture onto the Turquoise Trail National Scenic Byway, which involves cruising about 50 miles on Highway 14 in the heart of the state. While you're in the area, you can check out the spectacular views on the Sandia Crest Scenic Byway and pass through old mining towns.
During his New Mexico journey, Spatz found the most jaw-dropping part of his trip in northern New Mexico, on roads surrounded by trees and mountains.
"I was blown away by the beautiful scenery," he says.
New Mexico Auto Insurance Regulations
In this state, drivers are required to carry a minimum of liability insurance in the following amounts:
- $25,000 for bodily injury or death of one person in any one accident
- $50,000 for bodily injury to or death of two or more people in any one accident
- $10,000 for property damage in any one accident
However, many insurance experts recommend you purchase liability insurance in the amount of at least $100,000 per person and $300,000 per incident. Also, unlike many states, New Mexico does not require drivers to purchase uninsured and underinsured motorist coverage, which experts also strongly recommend.
State officials use the New Mexico Insurance Identification Database (IIDB) to help enforce state insurance laws and reduce the number of uninsured motorists. The database is used by police and the state to quickly check on whether a vehicle has the required liability insurance.
Despite these enforcement efforts, uninsured motorists remain a big problem for New Mexico, with nearly 21 percent of drivers failing to carry insurance. In fact, the state ranks third in the nation for the number of uninsured motorists.
Car Culture in New Mexico
New Mexico is a land of contrasts, says Traci Money, who helps travelers plan road trips and has driven all over New Mexico. The economic disparities are wide within the state, and tourists abound, so you're apt to share the road with a range of vehicles, from expensive luxury car brands like Lexus to workhorse pick-up trucks and cars that are "taped and wired together and barely on the road," Money says. In the southern part of the state, where there are more ranches, you see a lot more trucks, she says.
Drivers in New Mexico encounter similar differences in the state of the roads, Money says. In the touristy areas near ski resorts, especially in the north central part of the state, she's enjoyed well-maintained roads with modern, clean rest areas. But the road condition gets worse as you head south from Albuquerque to Alamogordo, where you traverse two-lane roads that pass through isolated areas, she says: "When we went through, they had port-a-pots in a mud hole marked as a rest area."
In general, New Mexico drivers are fairly polite and understanding toward the many tourists that flock to the state, Money says.
Urban vs. Rural Roads
Driving rural roads can be riskier than cruising the streets or motoring down the highways around big cities. That's because while only 30 percent of the U.S. vehicle miles are driven on rural roads, these routes account for over half of road deaths. In New Mexico the discrepancy is even higher, with 59 percent of crash deaths occurring on rural roads.
Rural roads can become even more dangerous when they're in bad shape, which is the case in parts of New Mexico, according to a study released in 2017 by TRIP, a national transportation research group. In fact, 25 percent of rural roads in New Mexico are in poor condition, earning the state a ranking of sixth worst in the country. And another 21 percent of the back roads in the state are in mediocre condition, while seven percent of bridges are "structurally deficient."
Rural roads are too often overlooked and funding is needed to fix the problem, Linda von Quintus, vice president of government and community affairs for AAA New Mexico, told TRIP. She added: “By investing in improvements for today and tomorrow, we can deliver safer experiences for motorists and save tens of thousands of lives."
Miles Driven in the Land of Enchantment
Americans are getting behind the wheel more and more. Like almost 70 percent of all U.S. states, New Mexico has seen an increase in miles driven in the state. From 2011 to 2014, the average number of miles driven in New Mexico went up two percent, from 12,262 to 12,512.
New Mexico tallied 358 road deaths in 2016, while there were 37,461 deaths nationally that year. The rate of roads deaths in New Mexico is 1.53 deaths per 100 million vehicle miles driven, which is higher than the national average of 1.16 deaths.
Gas Prices in New Mexico
Gas prices in a state can affect the miles traveled and thus the number of accidents and road deaths. Unfortunately, cheaper gas can encourage more people to get behind the wheel and actually make the roads more dangerous.
The average price of gas in New Mexico in early April 2018 was $2.58 per gallon, 8 cents lower than the national average gas price of $2.66 a gallon.
While it feels good to save money on gas when fuel is cheap at the pump, it's important to practice safe driving to reduce your risk of a crash. One easy tip: roll up your windows when driving over 55 mph. This not only helps you save even more on gas by improving your fuel economy, it keeps you safer behind the wheel because you're less likely to squint into the wind and also are better able to hear horns and sirens as you drive.
You might be surprised to learn that unemployment in a state also affects the number of miles driven. Generally, the lower the unemployment rate, the more drivers set out in their cars for purposes ranging from commuting to work to going to the movies to setting off on vacation.
Though driving is on the rise in the state, joblessness remains a big problem. While unemployment in New Mexico dropped slightly from 6.7 percent in spring of 2017 to 5.8 percent by February 2018, the rate still was significantly higher than the national average of 4.1 percent.
Unfortunately, New Mexico came in third worst in the nation in a U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics ranking of unemployment rates in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. The silver lining is that the high unemployment may have prevented some crashes in New Mexico.
Efforts to Remediate Distracted Driving
Distracted driving is dangerous no matter what state you live in, and driver inattention has been implicated in over 80 percent of auto accidents.
In 2014, New Mexico made it illegal to talk on the phone with a handset or to send text messages while driving. The phone use ban applies even when a driver is stopped at a stoplight. The state has been a bit slow to get on board with efforts to curb distracted driving. In fact, by the time the New Mexico law went into effect, 41 other states already had banned texting while driving.
But in 2015, the state spent $200,000 on a New Mexico distracted driving awareness campaign with the slogan "U Drive, U Text, U Pay." Drivers caught violating the law for the first time pay a $25 fine, but some cities have imposed higher fines. For example, in Albuquerque, first time violators pay $100.
Similar to the laws in many other states, drivers in New Mexico may talk on the phone if they're hands-free.
Teen Driving Regulations
The three-step driver licensing process for teens in New Mexico is designed to help new drivers get acclimated to the road before getting full privileges behind the wheel. However, teens can start driving and become eligible for a full license earlier here than in some other states.
In New Mexico, a teen can apply for an instructional permit at age 15 with proof of state residency. In order to get the permit, the teen must pass a vision exam and a written test on the rules of the road. The new driver also must be enrolled in a driving course that includes driving practice, has at least three hours of DWI education and has been approved by the state Traffic Safety Bureau. An instructional permit allows a teen to drive only with a driver 21 or older who has been licensed at least three years and is sitting in the front seat.
At age 15 1/2, after holding a permit for at least six months, a teen can apply for a provisional license. For a teen to get a provisional license, their parent or guardian must certify that the young driver has practiced driving for at least 50 hours, including 10 hours at night. Also, the teen can't have been convicted of a driving violation in the past 90 days. And the young driver must pass an in-the-car road test. A teen with a provisional license must abide by these rules:
- No driving between midnight and 5 a.m. unless accompanied by a licensed driver 21 or older
- No driving with more than one passenger under 21 who is not an immediate family member
- The driver and everyone else in the vehicle must wear a seatbelt
At age 16 1/2, after having held a New Mexico provisional license for at least one year, a teen may apply for a full license. To get the license, the teen must have had no traffic violations in the past 90 days and no drug or alcohol convictions while holding the provisional license. At this point, the teen can drive with no extra restrictions.
However, teen driving can be risky, and over 2,300 16-to-19-year-olds were killed in vehicle crashes in 2015. So it's smart for parents to monitor teen driving to help keep kids safe on the road. For example, parents can use technological aids such as geofencing, which allows you to confine your teen to a certain geographical area, and destination alerts that ping you when they arrive safely.
The State of Driving in New Mexico
Getting behind the wheel in the Land of Enchantment opens up the opportunity to drive through mountains and deserts and quirky towns. But low gas prices mean you'll have to share the road with plenty of other motorists. So, before you set out, make sure to brush up on your safe driving tips and consider increasing your protection with uninsured and underinsured motorist coverage. Then enjoy the ride under the wide open skies of this beautiful state.