Harris County is often recognized by local officials as the county with the highest number of drunken driving fatalities in the U.S. However proposed legislation and local groups aim to promote responsible drinking.
There were 2,938 alcohol-related crashes in Harris County in 2013, resulting in more than 300 deaths, according to the Texas Department of Transportation. The issue of drunken driving may be such a problem in the area partly because there is not a culture of using alternative methods of transportation, said Deborah Summers, a criminal defense attorney in Cy-Fair.
“There’s no [public transportation] system in this part of the county so there aren’t many alternatives,” she said. “Nobody wakes up in the morning and says, ‘I’m going to drink and drive today.’ It’s one of those things that is a nonintentional crime, and there needs to be more awareness as a community that any drinking and driving can lead to severe consequences.”
Harris County had the highest number of fatalities caused by drunken driving in 2013 in the U.S., according to MADD. Although that number decreased slightly in 2014, it is still not enough, said John McNamee, affiliate executive director for MADD Southeast Texas.
“I do believe people’s overall habits are changing and that’s why we’re seeing a modest improvement, but it’s not enough,” he said. “Drunk driving is 100 percent preventable.”
In Cy-Fair several local residents are trying to stop drunken driving. Walter Zanek formed a transportation service for individuals and groups who go out on weekends by offering rides in his party bus within a five-mile radius of the Willowbrook area. Zanek’s service, Walt Inc., is primarily for customers going to bars and establishments around the Vintage, Willowbrook and Jones Road areas.
“I want to try and stop drunk driving,” Zanek said. “I don’t care if Uber does it, if Yellow Cab does it, or if I do it, but it’s a serious problem. People are getting killed.”
Zanek said he believes one of the reasons people drink and drive in the area is because they cannot find affordable transportation in the suburbs.
“If it’s late at night, there’s no real taxis around,” he said. “People don’t want to get stuck at the bar so they drive their own car home.”
Zanek said there are about 90 establishments that serve alcohol within his service area. He partners with several bars—On the Rox, Stats, Whatever Sports Bar and Fletcher’s—to keep his business going by allowing them to advertise on the side of his bus.
“In order for me to continue my battle, I need sponsors,” he said. “I would think that the bars and restaurants in this area would want to support something like this.”
Cypress residents Dennis and Kae Pennywell formed Buddies Against Drunk Driving in 2011 after their 20-year-old son, Aaron, was killed by a drunken driver. The Pennywells, along with several of Aaron’s friends, visit several Cy-Fair ISD high schools to talk about the dangers of drinking and driving.
“It really hits home with the kids,” Kae Pennywell said. “They talk about it in their health class, but it’s coming out of a book. Instead with us, it’s a mother and father talking about the effects of drinking and driving.”
The Pennywells also have a documentary they show that was created by Aaron’s childhood friend, Caten Hyde.
Ultimately, people need to make a plan before they begin drinking, Kae Pennywell said.
“You can still go out and party and have fun, but you need to take responsibility,” she said. “Before you leave, you need to have a plan—make sure you have a designated driver or stay at someone’s house. It’s really simple, but we have to get that message across.”
There are potential changes coming through the Texas Legislature that supporters said could be a game changer in regard to driving under the influence if signed into law. Authored by state Rep. Jason Villalba, R-Dallas, House Bill 2246 would require anyone convicted of a DWI in Texas to install an ignition lock in his or her vehicle.
“The problem of drunken driving in our state is one of significant magnitude,” Villalba said. “If you look at the numbers in Texas, we have more per capita deaths on the road today than any other state. A big part of that is because people get into automobiles while they are intoxicated.”
The legislation would still allow individuals convicted of a DWI to drive, but in order to do that so they would have to blow into the ignition lock to ensure they are not driving under the influence of alcohol.
“It has to be blown into a certain way, and it takes practice,” McNamee said. “There are all kinds of safety measures to make sure someone isn’t trying to beat the system. This is a big step that would certainly decrease [drunken driving].”
HB 2246 passed through the House in early May and was sent to the Senate for approval. According to the bill analysis, ignition interlocks have been implemented in 24 other states and reduced repeat drunken driving offenses by 67 percent in certain states, according to the Center for Disease Control.
“While I recognize this [bill] will have some benefits for individuals convicted of drunken driving, we know that with this device in their automobile, someone cannot get behind the wheel and drive while intoxicated,” Villalba said. “This will save lives.”
Although DWIs can be costly in lives, they can also cost thousands of dollars in legal fees—anywhere between $5,000 to $15,000—and could ultimately end with jail time or loss of a license, Summers said.
“People don’t understand what getting pulled over for driving while intoxicated entails,” Summers said. “They don’t understand how the system is set up to where you can lose your license and how expensive it is for years following.”
In Harris County, officials formed a program for high-risk DWI offenders to help improve public safety and reduce court costs as a result of repeat offenders. Sober Court was formed within the Harris County Criminal Justice System as an alternative to jail time to help change the participant’s future behavior related to drinking and driving.
The program is voluntary and can last anywhere between nine and 16 months. There is a presiding judge for each case who determines when a participant is eligible to graduate, which occurs after months of meetings.