Dallas is a city known for its legendary football team and for having one of the busiest airports in the world, but it is also the owner of a less enviable statistic: the highest rate of DUIs and drunk driving deaths in America. The reasons are surprisingly complex, covering everything from alcohol laws, to city planning, to the basics of human nature itself.
Drunk Driving in Dallas
Even though per capita drunk driving deaths are down by 66 percent over the last 30 years, people “are still prone to making terrible decisions,” says the Dallas Observer, even more so when alcohol is involved. By that same measurement, drivers in Dallas tend to make the decision to drive while intoxicated more often than drivers in other parts of the country. Between 2001 and 2010, IDV Solutions produced enough data to show that Dallas had the fifth highest rate of drunk driving deaths in the 25 largest cities in the United States and the fourth highest rate of traffic deaths in general.
IDV Solutions didn’t offer any ideas as to why Dallas has a disproportionately high rate of driving under the influence when compared to other big cities like New York of Philadelphia (which have “abnormally low rates,” according to the Observer). CityLab suggests that some cities are designed to make drunk driving easier, and one of those places is Dallas.
Statistically, Dallas (along with Houston, Jacksonville, and Phoenix) accounts for one of the “least large safe cities for driving in the United States.” The IDV Solutions data found that Dallas (and these other cities) had a rate of fatal car accidents greater than one per every thousand residents, and they also had significantly high rates of fatalities where alcohol was involved.
The Dallas Observer notes that without New York City’s density and accessibility by foot and public transportation, Dallas residents who live outside of the most immediate of the city’s neighborhoods are faced with two choices: pay for a cab to drive them back home after a night out on the town or “drive drunk and hope for the best.”
A City Built to Be Driven
D Magazine explains that trying to iron out the statistics that measure drinking and driving on a citywide scale is not easy. Counting arrests for driving under the influence doesn’t work because one city’s police department might enforce DUI laws more harshly than another. But even with the gray areas of statistics, Dallas’s struggle with alcohol-related traffic deaths is undeniably worse than any other city in the country.
In 2002, the Department of Public Health and Preventative Medicine at Louisiana State University compared the traffic fatalities connected to alcohol in 97 cities and placed Dallas at the top of its list, with 10.23 deaths per 100,000 residents per year. Kansas City followed, with 10.1 deaths, and Albuquerque came in at third, with 8.62 deaths.
One reason for the problem, says D Magazine, is that “Dallas was built to be driven,” so much so that the Guardian wondered if the city would ever make room for bike-sharing programs. It’s something that city planners took seriously when they established that bars and other service-oriented businesses would have a minimum number of parking spaces. Even as the city allowed for “dry areas” as recently as 2010, ceding to Prohibition-influenced puritanism, bars and liquor stores clustered at the borders of dry neighborhoods, trying to be as close to desperate and thirsty consumers as they could. Citizens of dry areas tend to be no more austere than their drinking neighbors, so they have to drive to drink, and some drink and drive.
Texas’s love of cars is also seen in how the state managed its container laws. The point was to cut down on drinking and driving, but D Magazine notes that the bigger picture was to ensure that the state kept getting federal highway dollars. In 2001, for example, the federal government offered $86 million for a new highway project on the condition that Texas would ban all open containers in vehicles. If Texas refused to pass the ban, the government would have given that $86 million to anti-DUI education and marketing programs. The state “chose the pavement.”
On average, a big city has a straightforward, one-to-one relationship between an increase in its road capacity and the number of vehicle miles that its citizens travel. Highways are almost antithetical to this idea; they cut off the central urban areas from the suburbs, pushing people apart and conveniently making driving a necessity. In chronicling the role of “the automobile in American life and society,” the University of Michigan wrote that cars have shaped modern cities so much that car dependency has become a natural part of urban sprawl. A study out of Brown University found that for every inner-city highway, there was an 18 percent reduction in city population. Put another way, says D Magazine, the attempt to curb drinking and driving led to the construction of more roads, which effectively guaranteed that people would drink and drive.
Although LSU’s study came out in 2002, a consistent statistic since then has been the rate of alcohol-related traffic deaths arranged by state, for which Texas has lead the country every year. State government sets the policy and funding for transportation, but the cities (and their residents) bear the brunt of the decisions and consequences.
DUI Statistics in Texas
For Texas, those consequences have been dire. In 2016, the Texas Department of Transportation reported that 987 people were killed due to intoxicated drivers, including a number of pedestrians and cyclists, and as many as 149 people in vehicles that were not driven by the drunk drivers. The fatalities ranged in age from a 1-year-old child to someone who was 83.
- San Antonio: 1,845
- Houston: 1,492
- Austin: 1,432
- Dallas: 1,310
- El Paso: 758
Of the 17,434 DUI crashes that took place in Texas in 2016, the DOT listed the five cities that had the highest number of such incidents:
There was good and bad news for Texas. In 2016, the Lone Star State led the way for the 18 states that experienced decreases in alcohol-related traffic deaths compared to numbers from 2014, but its overall numbers are still tragically high. In 2015, the Centers for Disease Control reported that the state had the 14th highest rate of drunk driving in the country, with 703 such incidents for every 1,000 people. The national average was 505 incidents per 1,000. But Texas’s problems extend beyond simply just “incidents.” The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that the state also leads the country in drunk driving deaths, particularly those where drivers have a blood alcohol content of 0.15 or more, which is almost double the legal limit. In 2013, for example, there were 896 fatalities in Texas where one or more of the drivers involved had a BAC of at least 0.15.
DUI Demographics in Texas
The drunk driving problem in Texas is significantly found among Hispanic male drivers who were responsible for 49 percent of the accidents caused by alcohol impairment in 2014. Young Latinos are the fastest-growing demographic in Texas, and public health and law enforcement officials worry that their educational campaigns are not reaching this population. Overall, outreach efforts have halved Texas’s DUI fatalities since 1980s, but there is a concern that the programs are outdated and culturally and linguistically irrelevant for a new generation of Hispanics.
In Houston, where Hispanic men ages 17-34 make up 8 percent of the population, that same demographic was also blamed for 535 accidents while driving under the influence (around 33 percent of the total across the city). At least 38 people died as a result of those accidents. Researchers have struggled to explain why Hispanics seem to have a disproportionately high rate of driving under the influence when state data has shown that white Americans tend to drink more heavily than Hispanics (5.5 percent to 4.9 percent). According to the Houston Chronicle, culture may explain the difference. Many of the Hispanic men arrested for intoxicated driving in Houston noted that they were introduced to alcohol from a very young age (“that is what men do,” one said his father told him).
Additionally, many in the state’s Hispanic communities feel they are unfairly profiled and targeted for DUI arrests by law enforcement, which adds to the complexities surrounding rates of driving under the influence. In the past 10 years, civil rights groups have noted that 75 percent of the police departments in Texas pull over black and Hispanic drivers at a rate much higher than they do white Americans, even though police are more likely to find contraband when searching white drivers and their cars. Similarly, Hispanics are arrested at a disproportionately higher rate; the Texas Department of Public Safety found that 44.3 percent of the people arrested on drunk driving charges in the state were Hispanic compared to 37.9 percent of the state’s general population.
Tragedy after Tragedy
In 2015, Harris County (home to Houston and the third largest county in the United States) lost 362 people to drunk driving accidents. A sergeant with the Harris County Sheriff’s Office lamented that years’ worth of anti-drunk driving messages have not done much to stem the “tragedy after tragedy on Houston-area roadways.” The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that Harris County’s drunk driving fatality rate was 3.28 for every 100,000 people.
The problem is found in the far-flung areas of Texas as well. Loving County had only one reported DUI death in 2015, but at a population of just 112 people, the Houston Chronicle notes that single death could be devastating for a local community. For three years (2011-2014), Loving County had no recorded drunk driving deaths, meaning that the one fatality in 2015 made the county’s DUI fatality rate spike from 0 to 892 per 100,000 people.
In North Texas, Armstrong County enjoyed the biggest drop in alcohol-related driving deaths between 2011 and 2015. One death in 2011 represented a 51.79 death rate per 100,000 people, but with absolutely no fatalities involving alcohol in 2014 and 2015, Armstrong County’s death rate was 0.
Drunk Driving Enforcement in Texas
Given the overall numbers that Texas is grappling with, it comes as little surprise that the state has some of the strictest laws against driving under the influence. Many local courts have issued ignition interlock devices that prevent known offenders from starting their cars when there is a chance they are drunk. The onboard breathalyzer has a preset level for blood alcohol concentration, as determined by the Department of Transportation, and will not allow for the vehicle to be started if the driver’s breath suggests a BAC over the set limit. Since the state mandated ignition interlock devices for all people convicted of a DUI in 2015, drunk driving deaths in Texas have dropped by 8.5 percent.
Law enforcement officers in Texas measure both DUIs (driving under the influence) and DWIs (driving while intoxicated). In 2006, the Texas legislature created a DUI minor charge, for people under the age of 21 who had a BAC of more than 0.00. A person meeting these conditions would be charged with a Class C misdemeanor, receiving a ticket and a mark on their driving history in the process. In the event that there are children in the car, or it is the driver’s third offense, the misdemeanor would be upgraded to a felony, which would be prosecuted by the district attorney. A lieutenant at the Hopkins County Sheriff’s Department estimated that as many as 75 percent of DUIs are misdemeanors, and the rest are felonies. Police will make arrests for DWIs if a driver is under the influence of prescription and illegal drugs.
For people aged 21 and over, the legal BAC limit is 0.08, but even being under the legal limit and failing to complete a sobriety test or otherwise failing to demonstrate safe motor vehicle operation can be grounds for a DWI.
What to Do with a DUI
Despite all the awareness surrounding the dangers of driving while drunk, DUIs remain a common occurrence. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism warns that every 53 minutes, a person is killed because of a drunk driver; this amounts to 28 deaths a day.
Not all drunk driving results in a fatality, but law enforcement and the justice system take a very dim view of getting behind the wheel after a few drinks. If you are arrested on a DUI, here is what you’ll need to do:
- Hire a qualified attorney who knows the DUI laws in your state, city, and county. Texas, for example, has 254 counties, some with very different laws regarding blood alcohol levels and penalties for driving over the limit. You will need to make contact with an attorney who knows the laws of the jurisdiction in which the incident took place. This can go a long way toward making a difficult and challenging process more manageable.
- Don’t miss your court date. Most states, including Texas, require you to appear in court or before the state licensing authority within a month of the DUI incident. Failure to do so usually results in a bench warrant, where the presiding judge issues a warrant for your arrest. A DUI defendant with a bench warrant can be incarcerated if picked up at a routine police stop when the arresting officer runs a criminal background check. Bench warrants are public records, and they can show up when a landlord or potential employer runs a background check.
- You have to abide by whatever sentence the judge passes on your DUI case, whether these are monetary fines, mandatory classes, substance abuse counseling, revocation or restrictions on your driver’s license, or even jail. Seeing out the sentence to completion fulfills the terms of your conviction and makes it possible to get your driving privileges back. The scope of the sentencing is based on the severity of the DUI offense.
The Effect on Your Insurance
After your DUI, there is a strong probability that your insurance company will re-evaluate your policy with them. Since your auto insurance is tied with your driving record, and a DUI is a serious issue, your rates could increase by as much as 100 percent. Even a first-time or a one-time DUI incident will mark you as a high-risk driver, and your new rates will reflect that. Insurance companies cannot legally terminate your policy based on a DUI, but they may opt against renewing your coverage when your current policy expires.
If you get a DUI conviction in Texas, the state’s Department of Public Safety will ask you to file an SR-22, a certificate of insurance that comes from your insurance company before the state will reinstate your license. In the event that your insurance company does anything with your policy, they are required to notify the DPS that you are no longer covered; if this happens, your driver’s license and vehicle registration will be suspended. You will have to have an SR-22 for two years after your DUI conviction.
Being convicted of a DUI means having to go without your license for a period of time. Even after seeing out the suspension, you will have to get a temporary license that will serve as a form of identification but may place restrictions on your freedom to drive or purchase alcohol. In order to remove any blocks on your license, you will have to pay any outstanding charges to the Texas Department of Transportation.