Drunken driving trends upward in western Travis County

Local law enforcement agencies are teaming up again this holiday season to reduce the number of drunken drivers.

Local law enforcement agencies are teaming up again this holiday season to reduce the number of drunken drivers.

Communities in Lake Travis and Westlake are experiencing a year-to-year challenge in the number of driving while intoxicated crashes and arrests, according to local and state data (see infographics).

That upward trend is prompting law-enforcement agencies to continue stepped up enforcement actions during the 2017 holiday season while simultaneously advising residents to step up and help prevent what police describe as catastrophic, life-changing collisions on area roadways.

“As more people leave Austin and the population in the near suburbs continues to grow, you’re going to see those [DWI] numbers go up,” Lakeway 

Police  Department Chief Todd Radford said. “You have increased [driver] numbers on [RM] 620 and [Hwy.] 71 -- 53,000 cars a day up and down [RM] 620,” Radford said.

One measure of population growth estimates conducted by the Lake Travis ISD shows by the 2025-26 school year, its jurisdiction will have a 55.6 per cent increase in high schoolers compared to today, projected to top 4,700 students.

The Travis County Sheriff's Office offers another perspective. A longtime sergeant and former head of the DWI unit with the sheriff’s office said increasing DWIs can be attributed to the rise of commercial development.

“With the development of restaurants [and other services] serving alcohol, the more potential DWI drivers are out there on the roadway,” Sgt. Don Rios said.

Although  the numbers appear to be leveling out in 2017, Radford said he expects December's arrest numbers to follow previous year's patterns, ending with more annual arrests overall.

With more population and development will come the need for more enforcement and more officers, as well as broader legal tool, Radford said.

Already, in Lakeway, every day is a "no-refusal" environment, Radford said, meaning suspected drunk drivers must submit to court-ordered blood tests any day or night of the week.

LPD also has an intoxilyzer machine at its Cross Creek facility to measure alcohol levels on someone’s breath, and it is open for use by other agencies' trained officers, county deputies and state troopers since time is of the essence in a drunken driving arrest, said Kevin R. Madison, the presiding judge of Lakeway Municipal Court of Record 1.

“The closer you can get [a warrant signed] to that time of driving [is crucial]. Once a sworn affidavit is sent [by email or fax] to me, I can turn a warrant around in 10 minutes [using an iPad and an internet connection], "Madison said.

In the previous legislative session state lawmakers amended the Code of Criminal Procedure, via Senate Bill 1823, to allow transmission of evidentiary search warrants and signatures from judges, justices or magistrates by wireless device.

Although technology is speeding up issuance of DWI search warrants, local police say other factors are also increasing the number of intoxicated drivers being stopped in western Travis County.

Why are there more DWI arrests?

Arealaw -enforcement leaders say DWI arrest numbers are up because of enhanced training of officers to better identify signs and symptoms of intoxication by alcohol or drugs. Another aspect of the ongoing increase relates to the prevalence of cellphones, according to Bee Cave’s police chief.

“People call and report reckless or drunk drivers daily,” Chief Gary Miller said. “When you are in a smaller community, you are more likely to call in those reckless or drunk drivers because you think somebody will be able to catch them.

“We make a lot of vehicle stops where the caller has been following them from, say, Oak Hill, and it’s been passed on from Travis County dispatch to us. [About] 25 percent of our DWI arrests are the result of people calling in reckless drivers,” Miller said.

And the DWI numbers are not isolated to a certain demographic, the area’s fire chief said.

“We see DWI incidents in all socioeconomic groups and ages,” said Robert Abbott, fire chief of Lake Travis Fire-Rescue.

He recalled a fiery head-on wreck Sept. 16, 1999, on FM 2222 that killed two people and badly burned the front- seat passenger in a vehicle returning from a birthday party. The 18-year-old driver of the oncoming vehicle that crossed the center line and struck the other vehicle had been drinking, he said.

A DWI crash survivor’s story

On the evening of Feb. 25, 2007, a drunken driver struck Tiffani Ragan and her then-fiancé as they walked through the parking lot of The Home Depot in Sunset Valley. Ragan, now a mother of three, has no memory of the collision, but she said her now-husband heard the sound of a revving engine and had no time to react.

Ragan said she was pushed onto the hood and into the windshield of the speeding vehicle before being thrown clear. She sustained severe facial, spinal, brain and other injuries.

It would take months of rehabilitative therapy and countless surgeries before she could walk again. Even now, 10 years later, Ragan said her husband is still coping with emotional trauma long after his physical injuries had healed.

“[Drinking and driving] is a bad decision; it’s not a mistake,” Ragan said. “[Drivers] know they were drinking when they get behind the wheel.”

Court records showed the repeat drunken driver had open beer cans in his vehicle with more in a cooler and admitted to drinking vodka before leaving home that evening. His blood alcohol level was twice the legal limit in Texas of 0.08 percent blood alcohol concentration.

Police launch holiday patrols

“We’re realizing to [carry out] enforcement efforts effectively in Travis County, we have to do it in more of a task force orientation,” Radford said. “Leveraging the Department of Public Safety, the Travis County Sheriff’s Office and police departments to benefit each other to keep our communities safer by having higher presence is important,” he said, adding the department’s second annual high-visibility task force for DWI enforcement runs Dec. 21-26.

The higher volume of officers includes special traffic enforcement program, or STEP, teams funded by state and federal government sources. The Travis County Sheriff’s Office gets money from Texas Department of Transportation for a program called Impaired Driving Mobilization which supplements four existing DWI enforcement teams across the county.   

This year’s TxDOT grant covers 112 overtime hours for DWI patrol deputies between Dec. 15-31, according to Rios who works in the county sheriff’s traffic enforcement division and used to head up the DWI unit.

“When you get more of us involved, the more officers in a geographical area, the more productivity we’re going to have, the more impact we’re going to have, people slowing down and deciding not to drink and drive,” Rios said.

A new strategy this year is focusing on areas where prior severe bodily injury or fatal crashes have occurred rather than trying to blanket an entire part of the county in hopes of catching drunken drivers, he said.

“That is a big change in the way law enforcement pushes out their traffic division, moving to major arteries where major collisions are occurring and move that [DWI] trend in the other  direction,” Rios said.

Beyond traffic-enforcement strategies, first responders can only do so much, saying the other part of the recipe to limit drunken driving collisions involves keeping impaired individuals from ever getting on the road in the first place.

“Some people are going to [drink then drive] regardless,” Madison said. “I think [the solution] is really a community effort. It’s going to take more peer pressure than the fear of getting arrested,” he said.

Madison, who also worked as an EMT and firefighter for 12 years in West Lake Hills and Dripping Springs, recommended people hosting parties say to an inebriated guest: "You’ve had a couple drinks; let’s call a cab or an Uber or Lyft."

Rising cost of driving drunk

The costs associated with even being arrested for a DWI have gone up beyond $17,000 when fines, fees, time off work and jail time are added in, according to TxDOT.

Miller said prosecutors and juries are also taking a much more serious look at accidents that result in a death. Yet he said driving impaired remains a social issue that not everyone takes seriously.

“It’s a common or everyman’s crime,” Miller said. “Probably most individuals have driven sometime in their lifetime after they’ve had too much to drink.”

In fact, the Travis County District and County Attorney’s Offices currently have more than 7,000 DWI-related cases yet to be tried, according to an online search of the defendant docket listing.

To help keep the caseload from spiraling out of control, many low-leveldefendants are offered plea deals, said Dan Hamre, first assistant Travis County attorney.

One new tool for offenders to have their record cleared is a pretrial diversion pilot program aimed at first-time DWI defendants.

"It's an onerous [12-month] program," said Hamre, who added alleged offenders must voluntarily participate, have had less than 0.15 percent blood alcohol concentration and when arrested not have been involved in a collsion.

Ragan, who lives in the Dripping Springs area, predicted the DWI trend is only going to get worse around Lake Travis as the population continues to boom in communities along Hwy. 71 and RM 620.

When I drive Hwy. 71, my guard is always up. It’s dangerous,” Ragan said.  “I’m putting my children on the road with these people [who drive intoxicated]. The sad thing is you can be aware of your surroundings and [drunk driving collisions] can [still] happen.”

An ‘avoidable’ crime

What bothers Radford the most about this offense is that it is avoidable, he said.

“It is a choice that people make. It’s that one time either you don’t get home, or my family doesn’t get home," he said.

“My ultimate hope is that people begin to make better decisions,” Radford said. “It never seems to be an issue until it impacts you. And are you willing to pay the price of what that impact could be? [Impacts] such as financial, job loss, end of marriage, death of someone or [the end of] your own life.”