Intoxicated Driving Study: Harris County, TX and DUI Crashes

Michael GrossmanJanuary 24, 2017 5 minutes

The first reported drunk driving accident in the United States happened in 1904. Automobiles were still very new technology when these matters started to arise, and yet similar incidents started to be published with increasing frequency. Further evidence that people love to drink in exotic situations and locales, as though we needed any more confirmation.

Starting in New York in 1910, heavy penalties were established for drunk driving transgressions as the phenomenon grew out of control. Transgressions were stymied for a while, but never ceased. The threat of consequences may have stopped some potential offenders, but others were not deterred by the new laws.

The point is, drunk driving is a historical phenomenon that continues to gain steam even today. For whatever reason, people still override their good sense and pilot large explosion-powered machines while not in possession of their full faculties (alcohol by its very nature makes the decision seem far more reasonable). While never a good idea, this can be especially hazardous in densely-populated urban areas. An example of that concern happened recently in Houston, which is how all this came to mind.

A Crash in Houston: What Happened

On January 14 in Houston, an SUV swerved from the I-45 North feeder road, over the grass separating median and onto the freeway itself, around 1:30 a.m. The SUV then collided with a Toyota RAV4 carrying seven girls in the freeway's northbound lanes.

The collision caused the death of the girl riding in the rearmost passenger seat; the vehicle's other occupants, all girls ranging in age from their late teens to their early twenties, were taken to Houston Northwest Medical Center. The man was taken to St. Joseph's hospital, where he was listed in stable condition.

After approximately four hours of investigation, investigators alleged the driver was intoxicated, and requested that the hospital draw blood for toxicological screening. He is expected to face charges of intoxication manslaughter and intoxication assault.

The identities of the drunk driver and the victims have not been released as of this writing.

Harris County has Troubling Crash Numbers.

The crash, while terrible, is far from an isolated incident. Grossman Law has handled more drunk driving claims than almost any other firm in Texas, and in the course of that work we have become familiar with the areas of the Lone Star State where the number of crashes seems to be unusually high. According to the official statistics, Harris County appears to suffer the most intoxication-related wrecks in all of Texas.

As one might expect, drunk driving collisions occur more often in the larger Texan metroplexes than they do in rural areas. The numbers for 2016 aren't available yet through the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT), but 2015's support that idea. Several of the state's larger counties reached triple-digit fatalities during the year, while most smaller counties ranged in the double digits. Here's a few select examples from the counties hosting major Texan cities:

5 highest Texas DUI crash counties
Main cities, from top to bottom: Fort Worth, Austin, San Antonio, Dallas, Houston.

Those are the five counties from the list that had the most intoxication-related crashes. The complete list of counties, as well as several other ways of parsing the DUI data, is available through TxDOT.

As you can see, Harris County far exceeds its closest competitor, Dallas County, in intoxication crash events. Given the nature of the chart, that should be far from a point of pride. Harris County boasted 114 fatal DUI crashes in 2015, compared to Dallas' 77 fatal wrecks. The comprehensive total of DUI wrecks in Harris County reached 2,880, outstripping Dallas by over 500 documented crashes involving confirmed intoxication. Doing the math, that amounts to roughly 8 drunk driving incidents a day.

To its credit, Harris Country saw a drop in DUI crashes from 2014 to 2015; in 2014, TxDOT reported a cumulative total of 3,025 crashes in the area, with 153 of them proving fatal. It seems that the county's DUI numbers fluctuate within this range, as they were just over 2,900 (135 fatal) in 2013.

Obviously these statistics are troubling; what keeps Harris County at the top of this list?

Examining the Possible Reasons for Higher DUI Rates

I can only speculate what may make the region host to the highest drunk-driving numbers in the state.

Larger cities generally have a robust night life, which often involves alcohol consumption. Houston, touted as a "cultural hub" of South Texas, has a variety of restaurants--often with marked-up wines, draft beers (Texas has a large microbrewery scene), and a selection of proprietary cocktails--coupled with numerous bars and clubs means that citizens are seldom at a loss for things to drink if they so wish. Alcohol has something of a reputation as a "social lubricant" as well, meaning that it's a given for some that in order to properly mingle, they need a drink in hand. Unfortunately, one drink often leads to another, then another, repeatedly until it is literally ad nauseam. Texas dram shop law has some choice things to say about establishments that are too cavalier with serving obviously-intoxicated people, but even with regulation, some establishments value profits above safety. Putting a drunk person on the road at closing time doesn't cost some restauranteurs any sleep at night, so long as the sales were good. This idea should be kept in mind when going to an establishment that serves alcohol, since it encourages personal accountability, the usefulness of which cannot be overstated.

Additionally, Houston (the bulk of Harris County) is listed as the fourth-most populous city in the United States. The 2014 census estimated its population at 2.239 million people, residing within an area of 667 square miles. It is considered the largest city in the Southern United States, and is the principal city of Houston/The Woodlands/Sugar Land, which is the fifth-most populated metropolitan area in the U.S. Boiled down, I'm trying to say that Harris County is a big place, but it's fairly packed with people. With over 2 million people to account for, it's less surprising that they might collide with one another with some frequency.

What Can We Take Away from This?

Regardless of the reasoning behind Harris County's high DUI crash statistics, it helps simply to know that they exist. I don't want to stir up a panic or create some false narrative wherein every driver but you is dangerously drunk, but an abundance of caution on the road probably can't hurt anyone. The numbers don't lie.

My heart is heavy to learn about the carful of young women who were struck by an intoxicated individual's SUV. Poor decisions were made when reaching that moment in time, and it's possible that others helped that driver make those choices by serving him too much alcohol (though no allegations have been made about any dram shop involvement; he might have been drinking at home before hitting the road). Anywhere that someone might be exposed to other people--especially on the road--it's very important to exercise caution and awareness. People should take a cab or an Uber to any destination where drinking is anticipated, and if they become unexpectedly intoxicated--"One more round" becomes "one too many" very quickly--they need to find a ride. The inconvenience of retrieving a car is nothing next to the possible consequences of getting behind the wheel in that condition.

Let's try to make those numbers drop--not just in Harris County, but everywhere.