In what is now a time-honored pre-Labor Day Weekend/dog days of summer ritual, police and members of several anti-drunk driving advocacy groups gathered yesterday to stress what they claim is a multitude of alternative modes of transport for nocturnal area partiers and to spread the word about drunk driving in Harris County.
And that word is not good: according to some estimates, Harris County leads the nation in drunk-driving fatalities.
Standing at a makeshift podium at TxDOT's regional HQ on Washington Avenue, flanked by a dozen or so uniformed cops and people victimized by drunk drivers, HPD Captain Carl Driskell waxed a little bit sociological in explaining why. He said it was because drunk driving is a socially acceptable fact of life here.
That point was echoed by volunteer fireman Mark Rodriguez. Six months ago today, Rodriguez's 22-year-old daughter Krysta was killed by a drunk driver, and Rodriguez has since founded the advocacy group Krysta's Angels. He too said that drunk driving was viewed as socially acceptable, and lamented that it was not viewed as the selfish and criminal act that it is.
There's no argument from us on those points. On the local bar and music scene, you have to be absolutely polluted before anyone wants to take your keys, or considers you an asshole for endangering yourself and others. DWIs are viewed as an occupational hazard, not an anti-social act, which it is.
But their solution has us a little concerned. Both seem to believe we can punish our way through the problem. And they never quite got around to asking why drunk driving was seen as socially acceptable.
In fact the organizers of this photo-op seemed to preempt this question.
We believe it is seen as socially acceptable because there are no good and affordable ways to get to and from bars late at night in this city.
This event suggested otherwise. Behind the podium, there was a hybrid taxi-cop car bearing the legend "Choose Your Ride." There were more cabs off to the side of the podium, a couple of pedicabs, and even a Metro Bus. Wait a minute -- they have a bus up there? Trust a guy who knows -- riding Metro buses are far more effective in driving you to drink rather than driving drinkers home.
That is unless it your idea of fun to wrap up your drinking about 10:45, run to a busy street-corner to catch the last bus out, wait out its inevitable delay while wondering if you might have missed it, all while drunks in cars are yelling at you and making it home. And then you get on the flourescent-lit bus and take your seat amid a bunch of wild-eyed ladies muttering to themselves and guys shivering even though its 90 degrees. Not that we know anything about riding Metro home from nights on the town. It is cheap, though.
They also said to designate a driver, but who wants to be that guy? Evidently not many people, because Captain Driskell also stressed the importance of making sure your designated driver did not get tanked. He said they arrested quite a few of them -- maybe they were less drunk than the designees, but drunk they were nevertheless.
So that leaves you with cabs, which are expensive -- doubly so if you plan sufficiently to leave your car at home and cab it both ways. Or you can drive out and cab it home and leave your car in some godforsaken 'hood all night.
So you can either find some sap to ferry your drunk ass around, spend a fortune on cabs, or have the worst night ever on the bus. (You could also wake up your friends or family at 2 a.m. and request a ride, but we don't see that as the kind of option people could avail themselves of with much frequency.)
Or you can face the consequences.
Driskell mentioned that HPD is currently angling for a grant to enable them to make every weekend a no-refusal weekend. While that police technique is effective in helping them win convictions, something about unwilling people being strapped to gurneys and involuntarily surrendering blood samples to police strikes us as something the Founding Fathers might not have smiled upon. (Other cops want to set up roadblocks; likewise a tactic that causes Thomas Jefferson's ghost to howl in agony.)
So with cops drawing your blood every weekend, no more will Harris County be a place where drunks can skate with the frequency people like DWI lawyer Tyler Flood likes to tout.
What's more, Rodriguez believes first-time drunk drivers should be jailed, though he didn't say for how long. He believes that if people knew they would be going to jail if they were caught and convicted, they would think twice about getting behind the wheel with a load on.
And maybe they would. But would that law be equally applied? Would Jose from Gulfton serve the same time as Bethany from Memorial? Would Bethany find a way to plea-bargain down to some other charge if she faced mandatory jail for a first-time DWI? Aren't our jails overcrowded enough?
Not to mention the fact that the consequences of a DWI are nasty enough already. The trouble is, people believe that everybody else is doing it, and nobody thinks they are going to get caught. (That's the trouble with drunk people -- they are full of liquid courage.)
Bridget Anderson, southeast Texas's regional director for MADD, also touted a hard line and expressed hope that the legislature would come up with some new tactics in fighting the scourge.
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SHOW ME HOW
Some time back, we interviewed criminal justice blogger Scott Henson of Grits for Breakfast on the subject. He believes the solution lies not in the same old "tail 'em, nail 'em, and jail 'em" approaches we have been using, but in more sweeping societal change. He thinks the problem would be alleviated by changing the zoning laws -- stopping the practice of zoning the neighborhood corner bar out of existence, as is the de facto practice for large areas of suburban Houston -- and beefing up after-dark mass transit.
Sure, extra buses after dark would cost money, he allows, but that should be offset against the cost of DWI enforcement and mayhem.
"We're dealing with a vice here," Henson said then. "Alcoholism is messy, and there's no silver bullet to totally eradicate drunk driving. It is an issue to be managed, like cigarettes. With cigarettes, we've combated them with a combination of zoning and public education -- not just criminal justice."
"The solution to every social problem cannot be cops, courts, jails and prisons," he wrote back in January. "Where non-punitive strategies can prevent crime and promote public safety, that should be the preferred approach."