DWI crashes may be attributed to bars over-serving alcohol

The danger of drunk driving was emphatically brought to the attention of Texans by two violent crashes on Interstate 45. In one accident late at night, a suspected drunk driver was headed the wrong way when his car struck another vehicle, killing three people.

A woman who was intoxicated had gotten into a wrong-way fatal accident on the same highway just two days earlier, crashing her pickup truck into a smaller car and killing its 19-year-old driver and 18-year-old passenger.

Too much alcohol, not enough agents

The two motor vehicle accidents described above accounted for five of the 14 deaths due to impaired driving in Montgomery County in 2012. The rate is a stunning increase over the previous year, when only two people were killed by intoxicated drivers.

Texas prosecutors and police attribute the rising rate of manslaughter caused by intoxication to several factors. One is that bars and restaurants, they say, are over-serving patrons with alcoholic beverages. One bar, investigators found, served 20 drinks to the woman who drove the pickup in one of those I-45 crashes. Another dispensed 22 beers to the male drunk driver in the other crash.

Prosecutors and law enforcement officers are especially concerned that Texas has decreased alcohol sales enforcement. Budget cuts have resulted in fewer agents for the Texas Alcohol Beverage Commission, or TABC, which regulates bars and liquor stores. Job cuts reduced the number of TABC agents from 278 in June 2009 to just over 200. In one county that has over 800 outlets for the sale of alcohol, but there is only one TABC agent. The TABC has a number of vacancies, including many in the Houston area. Enforcing liquor sales restrictions effectively is impossible with resources stretched so thin.

Efforts to combat the problem

To cope with the problem of more intoxicated people getting behind the wheel on Texas roads, a task force was formed in Montgomery County, where the I-45 collisions took place.

State alcohol agents and law enforcement officers have arrested dozens of drivers on suspicion of DWI and have caught more than 40 intoxicated people trying to enter their cars and drive off. The task force has also used undercover work to detect excessive sales in a number of bars.

Some state legislators want stronger penalties for establishments with liquor licenses that serve alcohol to intoxicated patrons. The offense of over-serving is only a misdemeanor that carries a maximum penalty of a year in jail and a $500 fine for violators.

Establishments that over-serve liquor can be sued in civil lawsuits when tragedy ensues. One former prosecutor is currently representing clients in three lawsuits due to drunk driving accidents that caused death and serious injury.

Anyone who has been hurt due to a driver's negligence in driving while intoxicated can consult an attorney to file a claim to recover the cost of medical care and lost wages, along with pain and suffering compensation. Families of persons killed by drunk drivers can file a wrongful death claim. An experienced personal injury attorney will know the ins and outs of holding drunken drivers, and the bars that over-serve them, accountable for the grief they cause.