Does Austin have a drinking problem?

In Austin to tape his late-night TV talk show during South by Southwest, comedian Jimmy Kimmel joked last week that the real reason his show was in Austin was “because this is an intervention. You have a drinking problem, Austin. You need to stop.”

Kimmel was kidding, but in the aftermath of a drunken driving suspect’s crash Thursday into a crowd of SXSW attendees that killed at least two people and injured more than 20, a number of people are saying Kimmel might be right: that Austin does, in fact, have a problem with its culture of drinking and nightlife. And an American-Statesman analysis of state alcohol sales indicates that Austin drinks more than anywhere else in Texas.

Among those expressing fresh concerns are some of the city’s top public officials, who concede that Austin’s celebrated nightlife and partying culture comes with a cost — both in terms of public safety and tax dollars.

“We’re at – or near – the top of a lot of really great lists. One of the bad lists we’re constantly on is hardest-drinking city,” Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo said in a sit-down interview with the American-Statesman. “That gives me heartburn. In this city, drunken drivers have killed hundreds of people in the past 10, 15, 20 years. They’re a menace to public safety. They kill people from all walks of life on a regular basis.”

Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell said he’s “deeply disappointed” that the city’s image is being tarnished by making such lists.

“Austin has been ranked the fifth-drunkest city in America by several publications,” Leffingwell said. “I believe this is an issue that we as a whole community must address, as it reflects poorly. Residents of any community need to be responsible for their behavior and actions.”

Austin’s drinking culture

While there might be debate over the impact of Austin’s drinking culture, statistics clearly show that no city in Texas spends more per capita for drinks than Austin.

In the five-county Austin metro area, almost $5 billion worth of alcohol was sold at bars and restaurants in the past 10 years, an American-Statesman analysis of data from the state comptroller’s office found. The annual sales number, which doesn’t include sales at liquor or grocery stores, has more than doubled during the decade – from $314 million in 2004 to $689 million in 2013.

Travis County bars and restaurants sold more alcohol per person than any county in Texas during that time span. And it’s not even close – over the course of a decade, Travis County sold an average of $410.05 worth of alcohol per person, per year. No. 2 in the state during that period was Dallas County, with $298.75 of alcohol sold per person, per year.

In Central Texas, alcohol sales at bars and restaurants worked out to $522.94 per person in Travis County in 2013 — a 53 percent increase from 2004 – far ahead of Hays County, which came in at $174.74. The sales per person in other area counties were Williamson County, $123.58, Bastrop County, $113.42, and Caldwell County, $10.16.

The 78701 ZIP code, which encompasses much of downtown Austin including the Sixth Street entertainment district, served up $1.5 billion worth of beer, wine and mixed drinks in the past decade – more than any other ZIP code in all of Texas during that period. The next highest local ZIP code, 78704 in South Austin, served drinks totaling $474 million during that time.

Austin has one of the best-known entertainment districts in the country, “and one thing that accompanies live music is cocktails,” Acevedo said.

Predictably, many of the city’s top sellers of alcohol are downtown. The Four Seasons Hotel Austin tops the list, selling $36 million in alcohol over the past decade. The Hilton Austin Hotel wasn’t far behind, coming in at $32 million.

The abundance of bars and restaurants downtown is one reason why the Downtown Austin Alliance has worked in recent years to bring more retailers to the city’s central business district, associate director Molly Alexander said.

“We’re so heavily concentrated in food and beverage,” she said. “We want to bring businesses that are different than what we have now into the mix. It’s all about building a full experience, daytime and nighttime.”

Austin’s “work hard, party hard” reputation hasn’t had a negative impact on recruiting businesses to Central Texas, said Stephen Kreher, director of economic development for the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce. In fact, it has played a part in bringing several big-name companies to the region in recent years, he said.

“When companies are looking to put an office somewhere, they’re looking for a location with a high quality of life and sense of place,” Kreher said. “Austin offers the perfect mix.”

Public safety costs

Statistics related to alcohol-fueled arrests in Austin paint a mixed picture of the toll that local alcohol use takes on police work.

Over a five-year span, DWI arrests dipped from 6,405 in 2009 to a low of 5,092 in 2011 before rising again to 6,671 in 2013.

The city has also seen its share of high-profile drunken-driving arrests of elected officials in recent years. Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg was arrested in Austin for drunken driving in April 2013. She pleaded guilty to driving while intoxicated, served half of her 45-day sentence and remained in office. State Rep. Naomi Gonzalez, D-El Paso, was arrested in Austin on a DWI charge in March 2013. Gonzalez allegedly crashed the BMW she was driving into another car that then struck a bicyclist on South Congress Avenue near Barton Springs Road shortly before 2 a.m., according to an arrest affidavit.

A 2013 American-Statesman analysis on police use of force also found that 56 percent of all incidents involved suspects who were under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

However, despite the growth in alcohol sales, the number of public intoxication arrests has fallen dramatically in recent years, from 6,700 in 2009 to 4,300 last year, even as the city’s population has grown. Police say that’s due to a policy directive in which officers have been instructed to file more serious charges if warranted, such as resisting arrest or disturbing the peace, rather than defaulting to a relatively minor public intoxication arrest.

In fact, an effort is underway by an array of criminal justice, law enforcement and medical officials to open a sobriety center – “drunk tank” to many – that would effectively decriminalize public intoxication, which over the past five years has resulted in about 27,000 arrests in Austin, or about 10 percent of all arrests. As in other criminal cases, those charged with public intoxication are currently taken to jail, fingerprinted, have their mug shots taken and face future court hearings and costs.

Under a new plan, however, police would only detain intoxicated suspects and take them to the center. Offenders would face no criminal charges and would be free to leave the facility with no additional consequences after becoming sober.

Some things that potentially contribute to drunken driving, Acevedo said, include a shortage of taxis late at night and a lack of downtown parking garages that allow cars to be left overnight. Many people also fail to plan ahead so they’ve got a ride home at the end of the night.

Austin police have implemented a number of measures to attack drunken driving, Acevedo said, including no-refusal weekends when blood is drawn from DWI suspects who refuse breath tests.

Still, Acevedo said, there’s only so much police can do.

And all that police manpower comes with a cost, Austin economist Brian Kelsey said.

“To the extent that a growing entertainment scene leads to larger crowds and more drinking, the ripple effect can also impose additional costs on public services,” Kelsey said. “Consequently, part of the positive ripple effect could be offset by more spending on law enforcement, permitting staff and related public services.”

‘Such a simple message’

While city leaders ponder how much of a drinking problem Austin might have, advocacy groups and local education leaders say they are doing what they can to combat drinking and driving.

At the University of Texas, officials say they work hard to drill into students the dangers of alcohol. All first-time and transfer students under the age of 21, for example, are required to take an alcohol education course, said Susan Hochman, assistant director for health promotion and public information for University Health Services.

“We have to create an environment where college drinking is not the norm and where alcohol is not readily available,” she said.

The solution to avoid becoming a statistic is simple, Hochman said: “Know your line and don’t cross it.”

Texas leads the nation in the number of fatalities caused by drunken drivers, and it doesn’t have to be that way, said Angela Tidwell, part of Mothers Against Drunk Driving’s law enforcement program.

The average person, Tidwell said, drives drunk about 80 times before being nabbed for DWI.

“There’s a mentality that ‘it won’t happen to me,’” she said.

“Austin’s such a great city with so many festivals,” she said. “Our main focus is, if people are going to drink, we want them to do it safely. It’s such a simple message.”

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