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Drinking, Driving and Saying Nothing

Beyond public transportation, Austin needs to re-examine why we think it's cool to drink and drive

Katie Friel headshot

Weekends like the one we just experienced are happening far too often. In the early morning hours on Saturday, drivers leaving the east side sat in traffic as the northbound I-35 feeder road, one of the main arteries in downtown Austin, was shut down. From East Seventh Street until just before East 13th Street, lanes were blocked by police, forcing drivers to crawl through the residential neighborhood before popping out just north of the patrol cars.

For a few blocks, the inconvenience of it all had people wondering, "What happened?" But as we got onto the highway, the lights behind us, we drove home to our beds and promptly forgot about it.

 We need to stop shrugging our shoulders when someone asks, "Do you think so-and-so is okay to drive?" 

Until we woke up. Later that day news broke that a pedestrian, later revealed to be Kelly Wayne Noel, the man behind ATXhipsters, had been struck and killed by a drunk driver. In a cruel twist, another alleged drunk driver plowed through the crime scene a short while later, almost striking members of the Austin Police Department. Around that same time across town in Zilker Park, a victim of a still-unidentified hit-and-run driver was found on the side of the road, cast off like an animal to die in the weeds. While we may never know who the driver was, or if that person had been drinking, it is impossible to deny certain patterns.

Of course, this isn't the first time this year we've dealt with this kind of tragedy. After Rashad Owens supposedly plowed through dozens of pedestrians during SXSW, and was then charged with killing two Austinites in addition to two others, shock gave way to a deafening rallying cry for alternative transportation options.

And we certainly need radical reform. We need bus routes that don't take almost an hour to get from Hyde Park to the east side. Our lightrail should be open to cart folks home to Crestview after the bars close downtown. We need cab drivers that not only allow ride shares into Austin, but an actual system that reprimands drivers for refusing service. We need affordable housing downtown and streets safe enough for walking home without fear of being shot or mugged. We need so many things and we must not stop lobbying our City Council, writing op-eds and being vocal until we get them.

But these changes are going to take a long time. Bureaucratic red tape, infrastructure and passing legislation are all things that crawl into place. And even if we could construct a perfect city, it wouldn't make any difference until we change one fundamental thing about our culture: It is perfectly acceptable to drink and drive in Austin.

 Accountability for both ourselves and our loved ones is the only way we're going to safely navigate these next few years as bureaucratic shenanigans get in the way of real reform. 

Some of you might be thinking, "Not me! I never drink and drive." Well, congratulations. But you're probably still at fault.

How many of us — even when we walk home, take the MetroRail or the bus (because we're lucky enough to live on a route), or don't drink — have watched friends have one drink too many and drive themselves home without a single word of protest? I certainly have.

Of course we'll speak up when a friend is belligerent and fumbling for his car keys, but what about the pal who had one last glass of wine with dinner before hitting the road? The difference between a legally acceptable .08 and the .10 that Wade Atwood blew after allegedly killing Noel on Saturday is the difference of a drink or two in the average 180-pound American man, not, say, a fifth of bourbon.

We are a city of drinkers. We drink to celebrate, to commiserate, to kickoff the opening of pretty much anything. We drink at shows because the band is so good or because the band is so bad. We drink at backyard barbecues, at work lunches, at baby showers, at birthday parties, at dinners, at fundraisers, at political gatherings, at festivals and while we're hanging out with friends. Couple that with a car-based culture, a crap public transportation system, a sprawling city and a dash of Texas good ol' boy libertarianism and you have a recipe for disaster.

Does Austin have a drinking problem? We will leave that to the Austin American-Statesman to decide. What Austin most certainly does have is a drinking and driving — and not saying anything — problem.

 Does Austin have a drinking problem? We will leave that to the Austin American-Statesman to decide. What Austin most certainly does have is a drinking and driving — and not saying anything — problem. 

One could argue that the culture of silence is inextricably linked with the prevalence of the so-called Peter Pan Syndrome. Living in Austin is fun. It's fun to have Moontower Comedy, Austin Food & Wine Festival and Eeyore's Birthday all in a single weekend. Who wants to have a conversation about accountability when we can all see a band play instead?

But we need to start having these conversations.

Accountability for both ourselves and our loved ones is the only way we're going to safely navigate these next few years as bureaucratic shenanigans get in the way of real reform. We need to stop shrugging our shoulders when someone asks, "Do you think so-and-so is okay to drive?" And we need to grow up enough to know that if we're spending money on booze, we need to spend money on a way to get to home.

I didn't know Kelly Wayne Noel, the man behind @atxhipsters, and the pedestrian killed on Saturday morning. I do know he was a venerable voice in Austin, a disseminator of important cultural information.

Among the tributes online, Noel is painted as a man who hated drinking and driving, who would let friends crash at his downtown apartment after a night of partying. There is an outrageous irony that he was struck down just a few blocks from his home. It is so unfair that the death of a man who despised drinking and driving would lead to the arrest of three drivers under the influence. (In addition to Noel's alleged killer, Wade Atwood, and Ramiro Sosa, the man who crashed through the crime scene, another suspected DWI arrest was made early Saturday morning in the vicinity.)

Though tragic and unjust, Noel's death isn't terribly surprising considering Austin is a city of contradictions. Frequently lauded as one of the healthiest cities in the country, Austin is also one of America's booziest towns. We have social bike rides that end at dive bars and children's birthday parties with kegs for parents. Later this week, the byline on this piece will write an article about cocktails without a hint of irony. But, like we said, we'll leave it to others to analyze our drinking culture.

For now, we must continue to be vocal in our need for progressive policy and changes in infrastructure. And until the day that Austin is a place where needing a car is an afterthought, we must hold ourselves accountable. If we don't, the blood of Kelly Noel, Jamie West, De'Andre Tatum, Steven Craenmehr, Sandy Le and every other DWI victim is on all of our hands.

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