AUSTIN (KXAN) — Drunk driving continued at a similar rate in Austin during the COVID-19 pandemic before jumping to a far higher level when bars reopened, according to new data and campaigners.
Data provided to KXAN by the Austin Police Department suggests that the reopening of bars in the city following their enforced closure is linked to a sharp rise in drunk driving.
On Saturday May 23 and Sunday May 24, the first weekend after bars were given the green light to reopen, 49 people were arrested on suspicion of driving while intoxicated, according to APD.
Over the previous three weekends, the average number of DWI arrests in Austin was 24.6667 – meaning that the number of arrests doubled with many bars back in operation.
Nikki Vicknair, program manager at Mothers Against Drunk Driving’s Texas State Office in Austin, said the organization expected to see a drop in the number of DWI cases due to stay-at-home orders imposed in Austin and Travis County.
Instead, the number of arrests for DWI locally did not fall off as expected, she said – making the leap to 49 in a single weekend stand out even more.
“That many DWI arrests are very surprising,” Vicknair said. “That is something that we never want to see.”
But even with Austin’s bars closed, arrests for DWIs continued. Figures for the first three weekends in May are comparable to those reported in May 2019.
“During the pandemic we expected the number of drunk driving arrests to decrease because fewer people were on the roads, but it did not stop,” Vicknair said.
“Even with the stay-at-home orders the drunk driving continued resulting in some horrific tragedies across our state.
“Our hospitals and first responders have already been overrun by the pandemic. There’s no excuse for burdening them with a crime that’s 100% preventable.”
On Friday May 22, bars in Texas were allowed to reopen at a reduced 25% capacity after being shut down for about two months – however, videos circulating on social media appeared to show some bars were crowded.
Governor Greg Abbott’s executive order also allowed restaurants to increase their maximum capacity from 25% to 50%.
APD provided KXAN with the number of DWI arrests on each Friday, Saturday and Sunday over the first four weekends in May.
Notably, the day with the lowest number of arrests from the dates provided was Friday May 22, the exact day that bars were allowed to reopen, when just six people were arrested.
However, that number rose to 29 on the following day, Saturday, while another 20 people were arrested on Sunday.
Over the previous three weekends in May, the highest number of DWI arrests made on a single day was 16, on Sunday May 10. The average daily number of DWI arrests through those three weekends was 12.333.
On average, there are 5,000 to 6,000 DWI arrests per year in Austin. This is equivalent to between 13.7 and 16.4 per day, which includes weekdays when arrest numbers tend to be lower.
“The ultimate responsibility for those serving the alcohol is to ensure that they are serving to individuals over 21 and that they are not overserving any individuals,” Vicknair added.