By all accounts and measures, SXSW 2014 was a juggernaut. The festival of all festivals had record attendance this year, along with more national and global media coverage than ever before. The latter, unfortunately, wasn’t always for the best of reasons.
At approximately 12:30 AM on Thursday March 13th, Rashad Charjuan Owens evaded police capture for a suspected DUI arrest and rammed through a barricade near 11th St. and Red River, killing 3 people and injuring dozens of others before he was finally captured just a few minutes after initially fleeing.
Even though South by Southwest has now been around for 27 years, those few minutes will forever alter how we view our biggest party of the year.
Just over a week later, the city of Austin is still reeling from the aftermath, unsure how to process our feelings of anger and shock. Who can we blame for this tragic accident? Surely it wasn’t just the devastatingly poor judgment of a young 21 year old kid; there has to be a better explanation.
As Austin woke up to the news just a few hours later, the questions and accusations came pouring in. Predictably enough, much of the media coverage centered around the excessive party culture Austin is notorious for. At the peak of our biggest festival of the year, did we finally reach our breaking point?
We may not know the answer to that question just yet, but it’s vitally important that we shift the conversation from mere accusations to a constructive dialogue on how we can do better as a city.
“Does Austin Have a Drinking Problem?”
It’s a juicy headline to be sure, and not one without merit. The Austin American-Statesmen’s report last Saturday on the rate of alcohol consumption in Travis County provided compelling evidence to backup the statement. Over the last 10 years, the 78701 zip code that contains Downtown Austin is far and away the booziest zip in the entire state of Texas, with 3 times higher consumption than the #2 spot, 78704, which just happens to be just south of downtown. Jimmy Kimmel opened up his first SXSW Austin show at The Long Center by saying we have a drinking problem, and that his trip to Austin was really an intervention.
As a willing participant in this type of drinking culture, I have to admit Jimmy and the Statesmen aren’t that far off the mark. Austin is a real-world incarnation of Never-Never Land, where you never have to grow up. Where there is always a bar around every corner, a friend always around to share a drink, and no one to chastise you for over-doing it. Within a national culture of excess, we take it to the next level. It’s the reason why we top so many national best-of lists, and also the reason why so many people absolutely love the city of Austin.
Austin has a world-class social scene with a high tolerance for excessive partying. But as we push the limits of what may be socially acceptable, we must find a way to responsibly deal with the issue of drunk driving. The City of Austin needs to do more, or at the very least do something new. We need fresh approaches to an age-old problem. Stiffer penalties and more law enforcement is simply not enough. Even our own police chief, Art Acevedo, is quoted as saying he does not believe more police is the answer. When was the last time you heard a city’s top cop say more police is not the solution?
How Can WE Do Better?
Without new and creative solutions, this problem will not go away. Throwing accusations around will not make excessive drinking stop. A significant part of the culture of Austin is built around our social scene. Take that away and you begin to lose the free spirited flow of ideas as well. We cannot let the reckless actions of one person ruin it for everyone else, as often happens in our society. So what else can we do?
The usual responses are still valid:
- Extend the CAP Metro Light Rail hours, and make sure people know they have that option.
- Provide more buses late at night to take people home, maybe even offering free rides.
- Mandate certain city parking lots downtown to be partially zoned for overnight parking.
- How about we pursue the drunk tank concept that has gone around for the better part of a decade? (Glad to see this is starting to finally get traction.)
- Incentivize taxi drivers to stick around once the bars close.
These ideas have been tossed around for years without any real action. Other than harsher punishments for drunk driving, what has the city really done to pro-actively solve the problem? Stopping drunk drivers when they are already on the road is purely reactive, and by that point it’s already too late.
Ultimately though, the burden falls upon us. We must take responsibility for our own actions. We have to pick up our friends’ keys if they’ve had one too many and moderate our own consumption throughout the night. We can’t be blaming, and suing, the bartenders and bars that over-serve us. And we can’t be blaming a city’s drinking problem when a non-resident comes through and shatters dozens of lives.
The solutions I mentioned above are nowhere near enough. We are a creative city and must come up with creative solutions. So this is where you come in, our beloved Austinot community. What else do you think we can do to address drinking and driving in Austin?
As of Thursday morning, fundraising efforts for the victims of the SXSW tragedy had collectively raised almost $200,000. Astonishing considering it had only been one week. If you would like to donate, you can still do so at SXSWcares.com. If you want to be more specific about your donation, you can donate directly to help the family of Sandy Le, the 3rd person to perish from the accident. Donations are intended to cover medical and funeral expenses, and you can give at fundly.com/assistance-for-sandy-le.
What types of creative solutions do you think the City of Austin can implement to help reduce drunk driving?
Cover photo by Michael Lambie via Flickr CC.