Intoxicated Drivers Killed 39 People in Austin Last Year. So How Do We Stop Them?
This story is part of our series, The Road to Zero, which explores traffic deaths and injuries in Austin and the city's plan to prevent them.
She had already started cooking the eggs and bacon.
Deborah Tatum, 49, was reaching for a can of biscuits when she learned her son was dead. Her daughter rushed into the kitchen, telling her a police officer was on the phone.
“He told me, ‘Your son, Greggory Tiemann, has been in an accident,’” remembers Tatum. “There was this forever long pause, and he said, ‘Your son is dead.’”
In the early morning of December 7, 2013, Tiemann, 20, had been driving around Lexington, Texas with two friends. A childhood friend was at the wheel. He lost control. When he did, Tiemann, who was not wearing a seatbelt, and a friend in the backseat died when they were ejected from the car. The driver survived.
According to a police report, there was an empty six-pack in the front seat. The driver was charged with two counts of intoxication manslaughter.
According to Austin Police Department statistics, intoxication caused the death of 56 people on Austin's roads last year. This includes intoxicated pedestrians and drivers.
While Tiemann died an hours’ drive east of Austin and two years before the city’s record traffic deaths, the potential cost of drunk driving is the same: loss of life. According to Austin Police Department statistics, intoxication caused the death of 56 people on Austin’s roads last year.
For Sara LeVine, the answer is more transit options.
“We are a 24-hour town in a lot of ways,” says LeVine, who helped found local advocacy group ATX Safer Streets after a drunk driver crashed into South by Southwest crowdsduring in 2014, killing four. “Especially when it comes to some of those jobs like janitorial services and warehousing, they’re not making a lot of money. And especially as they get pushed further and further out of the core, they need to have those transportation options available to them.”
The thinking, LeVine says, is that given viable options, people will ditch their cars.
A study published in 2009 by researchers at Cornell Universityconcluded that when Washington D.C. lengthened its transit hours from midnight to 3 a.m., DWI arrests and alcohol-related fatal crashes dropped by as much as 40 percent.
But the city’s Vision Zero plan includes no recommendations to expand transit options. Currently, Cap Metro provides Night Owl and E-bus services that runs until 3 a.m., but there are fewer routes and ridership is low. Until Monday, ride-hailing companies Uber and Lyft operated in town. But the companies exited after a proposition to keep rules passed in 2014 failed. It's unclear if members of the council will work to bring the companies back.
“[Increasing transit options] wasn't brought up by Task Force members,” says Francis Reilly, a planner with the city and one of the leads on the Vision Zero plan. “I suspect part of the issue is serving a relatively diffuse population with transit is hard to do--taxis and the like are more efficient.”
Instead, the city’s recommendations include increasing DWI enforcement. The Austin Police Department says it plans to ask the city for funds to add about nine officers to its DWI team – three officers to each of the team’s three units.
“Getting arrested the one time is an ordeal in itself,” says Lieutenant Blake Johnson with APD’s Highway Enforcement Command. “Between the court costs and the courtroom proceedings [it’s enough] to make people choose otherwise.”
But it’s hard to predict how the department will convince the city of this need. Less than a year ago, APD announced it would add a third DWI enforcement unit, which for the first time, allowed the department to patrol for intoxicated drivers seven nights a week.
In a yet-to-be-published report where eight researchers (including Dr. Jane Maxwell with the University of Texas) considered what most effectively reduces DWIs, enforcement tops the list. The authors tout Georgia as an excellent example. After “highly visible, publicized DWI enforcement,” fatal DWI crashes fell from 34 to 17 percent over a 30-year span.
But many of the enforcement tactics praised by these researchers are out of the hands of Austin policymakers. For example, these researchers consider sobriety checkpoints to be one of the most effective methods of discouraging DWIs. But in Texas, checkpoints are illegal under state law. The researchers also recommend lowering the legal blood alcohol limit from .08 to.05 – something only state lawmakers could do.
So the city’s proposed a diverse list of recommendations: encourage more bars to serve food, consider limiting the number of neighborhoods with a high density of bars and explore implementing a city liquor tax. But many of these are phrased loosely – using the words “encourage,” and “consider.” (Plus that last one is impossible. The state oversees liquor tax. City staff says this one will be removed from the plan).
Lt. Johnson from APD says the city has to try a combination of actions – but ultimately it comes down to personal responsibility.
“There’s no silver bullet to solve the problem,” Blake Johnson. “You could set it up to where it is foolproof, to where every option exists under the sun and somebody’s still going to make the decision to get behind the wheel intoxicated.”
University of Texas students Raquel Burgett and Chloe Chamblee agree. They helped found Longhorns Against Drunk Driving when friend Vanessa Whitford, 20, was killed by a drunk driver last year. According to APD, she was walking on Riverside Dr. around 2 a.m. when she was hit by a drunk driver.
Burgett and Chamblee stress personal responsibility.
“I’m not saying don’t drink,” says Burgett. “Drink. Have fun. Just don’t do it and then drive.”
Deborah Tatum shared the story of her son, Greggory's, death at LADD’s first event this spring. Chamblee says while the stories shared are powerful, she wishes the story of her own friend’s death and that of Tatum’s son weren’t stories they had to tell.
“I don’t want my mom to have to tell a story like that,” she says.