Keep Austin Weird, Not Dangerous!: Texas Dram Shop Law and Travis County

Michael GrossmanMarch 09, 2017 5 minutes

The city of Austin, Texas is host to a wide variety of interesting sights and activities. Considered by many as the state's major artistic hub, "ATX" is a cultural center famous for unique cuisine and live music concerts. The city actually ranks first in Texas for number of artists and musicians per capita, which will surprise none of the city's residents. Unfortunately, history shows that artists and partygoers often exhibit an excessive fondness for intoxicants. This plays out in the city's drunk-driving statistics: Austin was recently rated one of the "drunkest" cities in America by Men's Health Magazine, mostly for its alarming status as 23rd in the nation for DUI crashes, eighth for DUI arrests, and second for binge drinking.

Zooming outward to view all of Travis County confirms the notion that Austin and its surrounding towns like to party a bit too hard sometimes. We took a closer look at the accident statistics of the area after we learned about a recent suspected DUI crash in Leander, northwest of Austin.

February 25, 2017: Crash in Leander

According to Leander police, the collision happened early in the morning on Saturday, February 25. At approximately 3:35 a.m., officers were called to the scene of a single-vehicle crash along Hero Way. Upon arrival to the street's 2900 block, they discovered a Kia passenger car had collided with a tree off the side of the road. In the vehicle were the bodies of 24-year-old Houston man Patrick Thompson Webb Jr. and his 23-year-old passenger Angeline Caresse Hoyle, both of whom had died from the impact.

Preliminary investigation suggests that the Kia vehicle was westbound on Hero Way when it exited the traffic lane on the north side of the road, then swerved back onto it before exiting the asphalt again on the south side, where it struck the tree. Police believe excessive speed may have been a factor in the crash.

Authorities say that Webb and Hoyle were last seen at a downtown Austin bar at approximately 2 a.m. They suspect Webb may have been intoxicated beyond the legal limit at the time of the crash and are waiting on the return of toxicological results to confirm or disprove that suspicion. No matter what is revealed, though, a lost life is always a shame.

Travis County DUIs in Charts

Travis County is the fifth-most populous region in Texas, with approximately 1.2 million people in its 990 square miles of land. The vast majority of that population resides within the city limits of Austin, which itself stretches over roughly 272 square miles. The math shakes out to almost 3200 people per square mile. Coupling that kind of population density with Austin's notorious nightlife (the city has seen an explosion in local breweries and distilleries since 2010, and long before that the infamous 6th Street was already home to numerous bars) creates something of a recipe for trouble, especially when we factor people driving in from the outlying cities and villages to participate.

While Travis County isn't plagued by as many DUI wrecks as Harris County or some of the others, it still ranks highly among Texas' "problem children" with respect to drunk driving. By virtue of their size and their various amenities (many of which serve alcohol more or less constantly), these big cities face such incidents with uncomfortable frequency.

2015 Stats from TxDOT. 2016 numbers should be released in May.
2015 Stats from TxDOT. The numbers for 2016 are expected in May.

As you can see, five of Texas' 254 counties account for almost half of all the state's DUI crashes in 2015. It's no surprise that these five counties are home to the state's largest metropolitan areas--Harris (Houston), Dallas (Dallas), Bexar (San Antonio), Travis (Austin) and Tarrant (Fort Worth) Counties contain the densest populations in Texas. Travis County may not be the heaviest hitter in terms of DUI crash numbers--Houston has carried that unfortunate distinction for years--but for a single county to own a full seven percent of DUI crashes in a state as large and populous as Texas is still highly disturbing. TxDOT further broke down the types of DWI events that occurred in each of those 1,624 documented cases:


Looking at the charted data, we can see that Travis County had 42 DUI fatalities through the course of 2015. If that seems low relative to the overall population, it's important to lend a sense of perspective to that number:

  • That same year, the entirety of Travis County saw 33 homicides. In terms of raw numbers, that means alcohol caused almost 25% more death than direct human actions.
  • 2015 also had 2,058 reported assaults compared to 1,624 DUI wrecks. That means for every five fistfights that broke out in Austin, four vehicles were drunkenly crashed.
  • 35 Texas workers were killed by toxic exposure in the workplace over the course of 2015. People worry a great deal about dangerous chemical or environmental hazards on a job site, and yet a single county's drunk driving fatalities overshot the entire state's death count from workplace exposure.

A 5-year epidemiological study conducted by the Austin Public Health Department showed that "unintentional injury," a more clinical term for an accident, is the leading cause of death in Travis County for residents between the ages of 1 and 44 years. When considering all ages, "unintentional injuries" still rank third behind cancer and heart disease, respectively. Not every accident is a car crash, of course, but the numbers would certainly suggest that drunk driving accidents factor in.

Bars Have An Obligation to Prevent These Tragedies.

I agree with the general sentiment that drunk driving is in large part a matter of individual choice. However, by virtue of the intoxication that leads to that decision, it seems reasonable to think that one's logic is heavily compromised by the time his keys turn in ignition. Suggesting that the entire burden of that intoxication falls upon the driver seems disingenuous when he drinks in bars or restaurants; after all, someone had to help him reach that point. Purveyors of alcohol, trained to know better and legally required to utilize that training, don't always act in everyone's best interests.

Bars are legally obligated to stop serving alcohol when a patron has become obviously intoxicated. Unfortunately, Austin's robust social scene grants plenty of opportunities for questionable practices by bartenders and wait staff. While I'm sure that most establishments comply with the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Code (TABC)'s specific directives, others see an opportunity for more profit and keep pouring until a patron's wallet is empty. I won't pretend that servers in these establishments are acting maliciously on purpose, but management in many places quietly encourages reckless over-service, which is a clear violation of Texas dram shop laws.

Travis County's overall DWI arrest rate has been slowly declining since it peaked in 2012. Even with such improvements, though, the county's reported DWI incidents still number in the low thousands per year. It seems like a city as proud of its nightlife as Austin is should try to more actively protect their customers. It's in the best interests of these businesses to stay on the good side of the law, as it is not to create drunk drivers and turn them loose on the road.