The high number of annual DWI and DUI cases and fatalities in Montgomery County has local law enforcement, attorneys and legislators searching for solutions, ranging from forming a dedicated DWI task force to stricter penalties for driving while intoxicated.
DWI is the largest criminal offense category in Montgomery County—between 2,000 and 2,500 cases are filed annually. In 2015, there were 624 DUI-related crashes in the county and 21 fatal crashes, according to data from the Texas Transportation Institute. Since 2010, there have been 153 DUI fatal crashes in the county.
In Texas individuals are charged with a DWI if they are 21 or older and have a blood alcohol content level of higher than 0.08. A DUI crash occurs if individuals have alcohol or illegal drugs in their systems, or any detectable alcohol if they are younger than 21.
“The average number of times someone drives drunk [before they get arrested] is 80 times,” said Kendall Collette, coordinator of volunteer resources for Mothers Against Drunk Driving in Southeast Texas. “We know drunk drivers are out there; it’s a matter of finding them and getting them through the legal system and hoping they’ll change their behavior.”
When comparing Texas counties with a population of more than 500,000 residents, Montgomery County is at the top of the list with its DWI fatality ratio, Assistant District Attorney Tyler Dunman said.
For example, nearby Fort Bend County, which has a population of more than 600,000, had only 273 alcohol-related crashes in 2015, according to TxDOT. The average blood alcohol content level in Montgomery County—which is 0.172, compared to the legal limit of 0.08—is also higher than the state average.
“Our drunks are drunker than the statewide average,” District Attorney Brett Ligon said during a December Commissioners Court meeting while asking for continuation of a No Refusal grant program. “The higher your level of intoxication is, the more likely you are to be involved in an accident. Everybody knows the person who is slightly buzzed as opposed to the commode-hugging drunk. The commode-hugging drunk seems to be what we have a lot of in Montgomery County.”
There are a number of factors that may contribute to Montgomery County’s higher level of DWI incidents, ranging from environmental to social factors, Dunman said.
“A large number of DWIs are single vehicle crashes where the driver ends up crashing and killing themselves,” he said. “Part of that is when someone goes off a two-lane road in the county, they’re going to hit a pine tree, as opposed to Fort Bend County where you don’t have [as many] trees and things that a lot of folks hit.”
Seventy-four percent of the DWI crashes in the county over the past five years have occurred in rural, unincorporated areas, according to the district attorney’s office.
Montgomery County Sheriff Rand Henderson said he believes one reason the community struggles with the issue is because of its suburban population.
“I think our design leads to it, and our lack of infrastructure on a lot of our roads is dangerous when you aren’t drinking, and sometimes becomes unnavigable when you have been drinking,” he said.
Social activities, such as partying on Lake Conroe and the festivals and activities held in The Woodlands, play a part as well.
“It’s a nice escape from Houston and Harris County,” Dunman said. “You have these folks coming in and engaging in social activities, and when they get on the roadways they may have had too much to drink and crash.”
When an individual is charged with a DWI, he or she is arrested and booked into the county jail, after which there are a number of court settings at which he or she will appear. Dunman said he believes the biggest penalty is the cost of a lawyer, which can cost upward of $30,000 or $40,000.
“Compare that to a $50 cab ride, and the decision is easy to make,” he said.
TxDOT continues to fund a countywide no refusal grant program, which provides roughly annually $250,000 to help with increased law enforcement for certain weekends and holidays.
However, there is no official DWI task force in the county, which would mean having officers dedicated solely to DWI enforcement full time, Dunman said.
“To me, that’s the next step for us as far as being successful with DUI enforcement,” he said. “I hope our county is moving toward that.”
Henderson said he also has an interest in potentially forming a DWI task force, but enforcing drunken driving is already a never-ending initiative for the sheriff’s office.
“We’ve got folks out there every day who are putting drunk drivers in jail,” he said.
Henderson’s office also works with the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission to mitigate any over-serving issues at local bars, he said.
In January, state Rep. Will Metcalf, R-Conroe, filed House Bill 1327, which would create harsher punishments for convicted drunk drivers when certain factors are present. The bill would add additional factors to the penal code to increase the range of punishment to a first-degree intoxication manslaughter charge, which would range from probation to life in prison.
The proposed factors include if more than one person is killed during the crash, if a child is killed, if the driver failed to render aid or if the person has a prior conviction. As of March 16, the bill has been referred to the criminal jurisprudence committee.
Dunman said the solution to DWI cases in Montgomery County has to start with accountability.
“If you’re with a group and someone’s had too much to drink, don’t let them drive,” he said. “Call them a cab or Uber. That $5 or $10 can save lives or their life. That’s the only way we can turn the ship around.”