70 percent increase Travis County DWI deaths in 2017, officials say

Travis County

AUSTIN (KXAN) — As the South by Southwest festival is in full swing, local law enforcement agencies remind the public about sobering statistics related to drinking and driving in Central Texas.

There was a 70.8 percent increase year-over-year in people killed in DUI-alcohol-related traffic crashes in 2017 in Travis County, according to the Texas Department of Transportation. In the entire state of Texas, there were 1,024 DUI-related crashes.

“I don’t think anybody gets into their car and says I’m going to hurt somebody else. But does it happen? Absolutely,” said Detective Mike Jennings, with the Austin Police Department DWI Enforcement Unit. 

When you look at the numbers, you’ll probably agree with Detective Jennings, it’s happening way too often. On average, there are 5,000 to 6,000 DWI arrests per year in Austin. But the department has made significant strides in the staggering numbers in recent years.

Austin had a 19% decrease with impaired drivers in 2018 from 2017. In addition, a spokesperson with the Austin Police Department reported a 40% decline in serious injury crashes with DWI and 6% decrease in crashes with DWI.

“It’s 100 percent preventable. And when other people are killed or injured, those are the affects of DWI,” Detective Jennings said. 

After a fatality is reported, the Texas Alcohol and Beverage Commission keeps a close eye on businesses that potentially over-served guests. Twenty-nine Travis County businesses were cited for selling and delivering drinks to an already intoxicated person, according to TABC spokesperson, Chris Porter. In 2018, the agency issued 31 citations.

With Spring Break for students at the University of Texas at Austin beginning Sunday, law enforcement officers and advocates marched to the State Capitol last week to honor the lives lost to impaired driving.

Beginning on Thursday and going until Sunday, APD’s DWI enforcement unit has begun its “no refusal period.” 

“They have a drive and a focus specifically for the roadways in this town and getting people to and from their home safely,” Detective Jennings said about his DWI Enforcement Unit. 

Travis County is on it, too.

Sheriff’s deputies will put in 80-90 extra hours of overtime watching for drunk drivers during Spring Break. Travis County judges are also getting to the root of the problem. 

“People who successfully graduate from DWI court are less likely to reoffend,” said Judge Elisabeth Earle, who presides over the Travis County DWI court. 

Her mission is to take DWI offenders and offer treatment and counseling. “We don’t want them to be a felony case. We don’t want them to kill someone or hurt someone.” 

So the next time they get behind the wheel after drinking, they think twice. 

Travis County’s DWI court started 10 years ago. A national study shows that DWI courts reduce recidivism by 60 percent. 

Effectiveness of the “No Refusal” Program 

There are still a lot of questions about the effectiveness of the state’s “No Refusal” program as a deterrent to drinking and driving. It’s something KXAN investigators started digging into last year.  

They examined Austin’s DWI crashes for 2017 when APD received more than $1.5 million in grants to support a then-record 142 “no refusal” dates.  While “No Refusal” was in effect just over a third of the year, about half of all those crashes happened during that initiative. 

A 2014 Texas Transportation Institute study found people were “largely unaware of how ‘No Refusal’ has impacted DWI fatalities and crashes.” 

But at least one law enforcement agency says it’s “more effective at catching and prosecuting” because of the program. Austin police say evidence from blood draws gives prosecutors a much stronger case against drunk drivers in the courtroom. 

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