Montgomery County, local officials attempt to curb drunken driving

DWI- related arrests have nearly doubled in nthe past year in Magnolia.

DWI- related arrests have nearly doubled in nthe past year in Magnolia.

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, according to the county district attorney’s office. 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.”

Counting Collisions Counting Collisions[/caption]

Intoxication factors
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 the Texas Department of Transportation. The average blood alcohol content level of drivers in DUI-related crashes in Montgomery County—which is 0.172, more than twice the legal limit of 0.08—is also higher than the state average.

There are a number of factors that may contribute to Montgomery County’s higher number 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 between 2010 and 2015 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 like festivals 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.”

While Magnolia sees increased traffic from the Texas Renaissance Festival in Todd Mission each fall, Magnolia Police Department Lt. Kyle Montgomery said the number of drunk drivers coming from the festival has decreased in recent years.

He said the department’s efforts to proactively curb drunken driving, such as no refusal weekends and social media campaigns, get partial credit for the decline.

In 2016, the department averaged about 14 DWI-related arrests each month, performing a total of 169 DWI-related arrests in the year—nearly double its 99 arrests in 2015, Montgomery said.

“That’s kind of what we’ve built our reputation on in the last few years is DWI enforcement,” he said. “For a town that has 4.5 square miles, the amount of DWI arrests that we rack up around here is really high. One of our officers had the most DWI arrests in the entire county [in 2016].”

Montgomery County Precinct 5 Constable David Hill said the large number of drunken drivers countywide is a result of drivers not planning ahead.

“I don’t think that the majority of the people that are drunk driving think ahead,” Hill said. “When they take that first drink, that’s when they need to figure out how they’re going to get home.”

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.

DUI Crashes in Montgomery County DUI Crashes in Montgomery County[/caption]

Challenges to DWI enforcement
TxDOT continues to fund a countywide no refusal grant program, which provides roughly $250,000 annually to help with increased law enforcement for certain weekends and holidays.

Montgomery said the police department receives about $2,500 annually from a state grant to pay additional officers for DWI enforcement. However, he said a lack of funding limits enforcement ability in Magnolia.

“We really have to be limited on the number of officers that get out there and work, because we just don’t have the funding for it,” Montgomery said. “If we had a whole lot more funding, we’d have a whole lot more officers on the street and more drunk drivers being put in jail.”

To help with DWI enforcement throughout Precinct 5, Hill said he has a team of about five officers who are placed locally to watch for drunken driving on select weekends, including holidays.

“I know that they’re always out on the weekdays too, but we try to concentrate on the weekends,” he said.

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.

Henderson said he also has an interest in potentially forming a DWI task force, but the issue 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.

Average Blood Alcohol Content Level Average Blood Alcohol
Content Level[/caption]

Legal, law enforcement solutions
Henderson’s office works with the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission to mitigate any over-serving issues at local bars, he said.
To limit drunken driving, Hill said employees of local establishments should educate customers and ask whether they are driving afterward.

“I know they’re in the business of selling alcohol, but they should sell it responsibly,” Hill 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 April 24, the bill is pending in 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.”
By Anna Lotz

Editor, Tomball | Magnolia & Conroe | Montgomery

Anna joined Community Impact Newspaper as a reporter in May 2016 after graduating with a degree in journalism from Cedarville University in Cedarville, Ohio. In July 2017, she transitioned to editor for the Tomball|Magnolia edition. She began covering the communities of Conroe and Montgomery as well in 2020. Anna covers education, local government, transportation, business, real estate development and nonprofits in these communities. Prior to CI, Anna served as editor-in-chief of Cedars, interned with the National Journalism Center in Washington, D.C., and spent time writing for the Springfield News-Sun and Xenia Daily Gazette.



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