It's widely understood that the hours of midnight to 4 a.m. are a risky time to be on the road. It's not a baseless assumption; in Texas, our roads see an unfortunate number of drunk drivers taking to the streets around the time of last call. Indeed, this phenomenon is so well appreciated that most Texans have learned to plan accordingly--when I go to my friends' annual New Year's Eve party, I plan either to leave before the ball drops or to spend the night there.
However, a recent accident that occurred in broad daylight near Austin made me wonder whether our preconceived notions about when drunk driving accidents occur are entirely accurate. As such, I delved into the TxDOT statistics and discovered that there are a ton of drunks on the road during the waking hours.
How Did This Show Up on My Radar?
A recent drunk driving accident occurred in Bastrop, Texas, which left a man seriously injured and claimed the life of a his female passenger (who is presumably his wife). As I read through the news releases covering the wreck, I automatically assumed that the incident took place around 2 a.m., as crashes so often happen in the hours following closing time. That turned out not to be the case here, however--here's what actually happened:
According to officials from the Texas Department of Public Safety, the collision happened around 6:30 p.m. in the town of Bastrop, near the intersection of Texas Highway 21 and South Shore Road. 29-year-old Taylor Richard Tate was westbound on TX-21 in his Ford Mustang when he allegedly rear-ended a Chevy Equinox as it turned into the highway's westbound lanes.
The impact seriously injured the driver of the Equinox, 68-year-old William Koegler, who was taken by emergency personnel to University Medical Center Brackenridge. His passenger, 64-year-old Alicia Koegler, was pronounced dead at the scene of the crash. And, per the usual, the alleged drunk driver was reportedly uninjured by the collision. He was however charged with intoxication manslaughter with a vehicle.
Supposing someone thought it'd be a good idea to get drunk and hit the road is plenty bad on its own. But the fact that it happened when it did seems to say, "it's not enough to avoid the typical 'drunk driving hours,' because they can get you any time."
What TxDOT Data Shows: Weekend DUI Crashes
TxDOT provides a handy chart (which you can access here) which shows not only how many drunk driving accidents happen in a given year but also what time of day these wrecks took place. Further, they break it down by day of the week. This ultimately enables readers to compare, say, the hours of 11:00am-noon on a Tuesday to, say, the hours of 5:00pm-6:00pm on a Monday, or the number drunk driving accidents that took place on a Saturday versus the number of drunk driving accidents that took place on a Wednesday, or any other similar combination.
One of the first things I gleaned from the evidence is that the fear of driving around the time of last call is indeed legitimate. In fact, about 40% of all drunk driving accidents occur in about a four hour window, straddling last call. But what's really interesting (and terrifying) is that most of Saturday afternoon is actually just as dangerous than last call on a weekday. Let me repeat that: you have practically the same risk for getting injured or killed by a drunk driver on a Saturday at 6:00 pm as you do on a Wednesday at 2:00am. Color me shocked.
To illustrate this, we extracted two columns of data (shown at right). As you can see, we compare Wednesday to Saturday, broken down by 24 hour-long segments. What immediately jumps out is that there almost as many drunk driving accidents from 6:00pm-10:00pm on Saturday than there are from 4:00pm, through last call, all the way to 4:00am on a Tuesday. In other words, Saturday is equally lousy with drunk drivers at non-peak drunk driving hours than Tuesday is before, during, and after peak drunk driving hours. What this tells us is that more people are getting drunk during more hours of the day on Saturday. Essentially, for most of the evening hours on Saturday, you are at greater risk for getting hurt by a drunk driver than you are
at peak drunk driving times during the week.
So why are Saturdays so saturated with alcohol? I have a friend who spent many years in the service industry and he's always eager to share "inside baseball" from years of working with bars and restaurants that serve alcohol. I told him about my findings, and he didn't seem surprised in the least. In fact, he offered some insights from his time in the trenches. He explained that every alcohol provider is well-aware that they're supposed to cut people off when they've had too much. The Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission (TABC) offers a number of incentives to alcohol providers who require that their servers go through a TABC-sanctioned responsible alcohol service class. These classes teach servers the basics of Texas liquor law as well as provide tips for responsible alcohol service. Almost anyone who has ever poured or brought you a drink in a Texas bar or restaurant has been through one of these classes.
If they all know the rules, though, why are they broken so often? The short answer is that while food sales keep the lights on in a restaurant, it is usually liquor sales that determine whether or not a place stays open. He explained that it's widely understood by restaurant managers that repeat customers, the life-blood of any business, are obviously more likely to come back when customers feel they've had a great time. As long as patrons get home safely, there aren't too many people who go some place, have a few too many, and don't look back on it as a great time. At the same time, manager bonuses are tied to increasing sales in the restaurant. Most well-trained restaurants staffs get as much as they can out of suggestive-selling techniques, like pushing appetizers, sides, and more expensive menu items. This means that increasing liquor sales and repeat business are the real drivers of sale growth and management bonuses.
He related to me that during the week, most customers are on their best behavior, which means that selling alcohol at lunch is difficult, even for the best servers. So that's one time without an opportunity to boost sales. At dinnertime, while people may be more inclined to drink, they still have to get up in the morning and go to work, which also limits the potential for alcohol sales. So when do people have the time drink as much as they please, without worrying about professional consequences? You guessed it, Saturday and Sunday morning.
Weekend brunch offers the opportunity for the unholy marriage of people with the time to drink and restaurateurs eager for a chance to make some easy money. Among foods and drinks in a restaurant, breakfast foods and brunch drinks like mimosas and Bloody Marys have some of the highest profit margins. I expected that my friend would have stories of drinking that got out of hand during Saturday and Sunday brunch hours and he had plenty of tales of glassy-eyed patrons walking out (or into) the door to the next bar, or their car. Then I asked him, "How many times did you cut these folks off?" He replied, "A couple, but the manager would just get someone else to serve them, so I stopped worrying about it."
Suffice it to say, I was floored. "That's just the way it works," he explained. "You don't offer cheap carafes of fruit-tinged champagne or liquor because you're planning on cutting people off."
Well, that's awful. As it turns out, apparently all hours of the day on the weekends are pretty darn unsafe. It's as if restaurants are conducting some perverse social experiment, and the lives of real people like William and Alicia Koegler hang in the balance. Obviously, Texas dram shop laws allow victims to hold negligent servers and alcohol providers accountable, but it's sad that we even need such laws when all it would really take to save lives is a conscientious restaurant staff cutting off a drunk patron.