Police revise drunken driving crash stats key to Prop 1 campaign

The Austin Police Department provided new data this week showing the city didn’t see a large drop in drunken driving-related crashes in 2014, undercutting the previously reported statistics that Uber and Lyft officials had touted as part of the public safety benefit ride-hailing services brought to Austin.

As recently as last fall, Austin police had reported 454 driving-while-intoxicated crashes in 2014, which would have been a 23 percent drop from the previous year. But the updated numbers obtained this week by the American-Statesman show the department now counts 523 DWI crashes for 2014, which would be a drop of just 12 percent.

Looking at the nine-month period after the ride-hailing services started operating in June 2014, DWI crashes dropped 7 percent in 2014, then inched up 4 percent in those months the following year.

The police department on Thursday stood by its latest figures, attributing the dramatic shift to information being added to existing cases and a “new search capability” that lets the department “capture” more data in cases.

“Data as it relates to DWI is very fluid and constantly changing,” a police spokeswoman said in a statement.

The Statesman discovered the new 2014 DWI-wreck count as part of a routine records request to the department, seeking a month-by-month breakdown of the DWI statistics as part of its coverage of Proposition 1.

The ride-hailing companies had cited the previously reported 23 percent figure in appearances before the City Council, while their political action committee, Ridesharing Works for Austin, has repeated it in fliers and commercials for Prop 1. The measure on Saturday’s ballot would replace the city’s rules for the ride-hailing firms, most notably removing the requirement for fingerprint-based criminal background checks of their drivers.

Contacted Thursday about the revised DWI statistics, Ridesharing Works spokesman Travis Considine didn’t respond to specific questions about the figures, but said: “Drinking and driving is unacceptable, which is why our coalition supports ridesharing as a reliable option to getting around town safely.”

While Police Chief Art Acevedo didn’t cite the 23 percent figure when he addressed the City Council last December as it considered the new rules, he said there was little doubt ride-hailing services help with the drunken driving issue.

“If we take away the (ride-hailing firms) here and in other cities, it definitely will impact DWI,” Acevedo told the council then. “There’s no doubt about it.”

But the revised 2014 numbers raise doubts about that narrative.

Between June 2015 and February 2016, the number of DWI-related wrecks increased by 4 percent when compared with the same nine-month time period in 2014 and 2015, a Statesman analysis found.

Over the past five years, the largest decrease in that June-to-February time period occurred between 2012 and 2013, when the number of drunken driving accidents dropped by 26 percent. That was before Lyft and Uber came to Austin.

In the Statesman analysis, the figures for each period run from June, the month that ride-hailing services came to Austin in 2014, to February, the most recent month that statistics were available.

Anti-Prop 1 campaigners said the new numbers reinforced their stance there is no connection between the drop in drunken driving wrecks and the arrival of ride-sharing services.

“There is not even a hint of correlation whatsoever between (ride-hailing) and DWI arrests or accidents,” said Matt Hersh, a University of Texas statistician who is volunteering with the anti-Prop 1 group, Our City, Our Safety, Our Choice. He had previously analyzed the police department’s flawed figures and even those, he said, showed no relationship. He added: “The new figures give you the same results but on steroids.”

The discovery of the massive discrepancy in police statistics comes as the massive battle over the Uber- and Lyft-backed Prop 1 entered its closing days, which added daily press conferences from both sides to the barrage of pro-Prop 1 television and radio ads that have blanketed the airwaves.

Campaign finance filings showed the ride-hailing money gusher hasn't stopped: Ridesharing Works reported Thursday that Uber gave it an additional $500,000. That brings the total amount of money it has raised to $8.6 million, all contributed by either Uber or Lyft. And to ratchet up the pressure more, Lyft sent out a text message to its drivers saying the service would leave Austin by Monday morning if Prop 1 fails.

“They’ve spent a lot of money confusing folks,” said Andrew Romero, chairman of the Austin Police Association’s political action committee, which has long opposed Prop 1. “Today, we wanted to speak out with our voice.”

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