AUSTIN (KXAN) — “The morning of the accident as I was walking out the door to go to the bus stop, I turned one extra time and looked at my mom and said I love you, goodbye. Just like that not realizing that I was saying goodbye forever,” Brandi Clopton recalls the day she lost her parents to a drunk driver four years ago.
The deadly crash happened in the middle of the day on Tuesday, Feb. 4, 2014. “You know, it wasn’t a holiday. It wasn’t a weekend. Just another day,” Clopton said.
An intoxicated driver can get behind the wheel at any time on any day and cause irrecoverable damage to a family. However, the Austin Police Department along with numerous law enforcement agencies across the state implement No Refusal days in an effort to encourage people to find safe rides home after they’ve been drinking.
In Austin, the No Refusal initiatives usually run on weekends and holidays, when drunk driving is more prevalent. During the initiative, detectives can quickly get a warrant to draw your blood if you refuse a breathalyzer test during a suspected DWI stop.
For the first time in APD’s history, during this year’s South by Southwest (SXSW), Austin police will start No Refusal in the middle of the afternoon to catch early drinkers.
While the ultimate goal for No Refusal is to be a deterrent to drinking and driving, a KXAN Investigation found the average number of DWI crashes during No Refusal days are higher than a regular day. KXAN analyzed the data from 2017 which showed a 42 percent average increase in DWI crashes on No Refusal dates, compared to dates with no such enforcement.
Even though a No Refusal initiative was not in effect when Melissa Marshall hit her parents’ car, Clopton wonders if the program’s goal to deter drunk driving all year is actually working.
Stories like Clopton’s prompted Texas law enforcement agencies to begin No Refusal initiatives back in 2005. The Texas Department of Transportation started distributing grants four years later. Records show, in the past decade, the agency has given out more than $410 million in federal, state and local dollars on “Alcohol and Other Drug Counter Measures.” A bulk of that money, most of which is federal, goes to impaired driving media campaigns. A lot also goes to law enforcement agencies applying for No Refusal grants to fund more staffing and resources during those extra hours.
The Austin Police Department received more than $1.5 million in federal grants last year, which helped support a record 142 No Refusal dates–the most the city has ever conducted.
When asked if No Refusal is effective, Detective Mike Jennings said, “I would say yes.” Jennings says he’s seen the initiative prompt more drivers to consent to breath or blood testing when stopped, compared to a decade ago when he first joined the DWI Enforcement Unit.
But when it comes to data to back up that claim, he says it’s hard to track and there are a lot of variables. “Whether a department does weekends, whether they’re 24/7 No Refusal, whether they track their arrests from beginning all the way through conviction, if that stuff is reported back to the departments,” Jennings explained.
One variable KXAN was able to track was the number of Austin’s DWI crashes for 2017. While No Refusal was in effect just over a third of the year, about half of all those crashes happened during that initiative.
But that’s just one department. And it may or may not be the best way to measure success.
“It is something that we would love to be able to pin down 100 percent; this is how we evaluate that program. I don’t know specifically how we would do that,” Jennings said.
Which is why four years ago, TxDOT commissioned a study.
“Once we started conducting those programs we decided to work with the Texas A&M Transportation Institute to conduct a study to look at the effectiveness. So if we’re investing funds in these programs, what impact are we having here in the state?” TxDOT’s director of safety traffic Terry Pence said.
Four years later, there’s still no clear answer.
“At this point right now, I think the jury’s still out,”
“At this point right now, I think the jury’s still out,” Troy Walden said. Walden serves as director of the Center for Alcohol & Drug Education Studies at the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, which put together the study.
At one point, the study says people were “largely unaware of how No-Refusal has impacted DWI fatalities and crashes.”
But at least one law enforcement agency reported it is “more effective at catching and prosecuting” because of the program. APD backs that up, saying the evidence they get from blood draws gives prosecutors a much stronger case against drunk drivers in the courtroom.
“In order for us to be able to definitely say that No Refusal is effective, there has to be more research,” Walden said, and a determination of what exactly it is the state wants to measure to determine effectiveness. “In order to be good stewards of the money that’s afforded to us through the federal government, to our state, we have to have an evaluative component to be able to measure whether or not there’s effectiveness of a program.”
Currently, Pence says TxDOT does not have a study underway and the department hasn’t received a proposal for funding consideration.
When asked if an independent review is needed to see if the money is being spent correctly, Pence said, “We’re always interested in any area that we can help address or identify problems here in the state. Unfortunately, alcohol-related crashes cause 31 percent of our fatalities. So impaired driving continues to be a significant problem for us. So we’re always looking for opportunities to go in and analyze our data, take a look at, you know, what can we as a state do to help reduce the number of fatalities?”
Pence said from an anecdotal standpoint, he’s been encouraged to hear community awareness of No Refusal efforts growing over the years.
“Our ultimate goal is to get people to make the right choice,” he said.
It’s a problem Clopton says might be solved faster with a different approach beyond No Refusal.
“I just feel like there should be more done on a daily basis. It’s not just the holidays or the evenings or the weekends. It’s 24/7. People are drinking and getting behind the wheel thinking they can do it,” she said.