Thursday, March 24, 2011

Drunk Driving: Just Another Texan Birthright

Texans identify as drinkers. I think that this stems from a culture saturated with satiation and entitlement - the typical Texan stereotype demands satisfaction with a side of ego. There is legitimate, positive pride and interest in cuisine and entertainment in Texas, coupled with numerous enabling bars and restaurants, but drinking is so pervasive here that it extends far beyond regular dining and social events to the point where I've even been offered a LoneStar Beer by my hair stylist or while browsing at boutiques. The drinking culture is deeply indoctrinated in youth, with Texas being one of the few remaining states where anyone under 21 can be served alcohol if in the presence of an approving parent. Texans are drinkers, despite their restrictive blue laws - alcohol can't be sold after 12pm in stores or before noon on Sundays, and liquor is sold in separate stores. Combine these cultural norms with Texas infamous sprawl and extensive roadways and you get an obvious statistic: Texas leads the nation in drinking and driving arrests and alcohol-related motor-vehicle fatalities in the country.

So while its unsettling to read that German Rodriguez, 52, was arrested for his 5th DWI this Wednesday, March 23, in Austin, it's somehow unsurprising. Rodriguez was sentenced to 60 years in prison, ineligible for parole for at least 30 years. He had collided with an oncoming car, driven by 17-year-old Michal Pawluk, during a left turn. Rodriguez suffered minor injuries in the crash and both vehicles were severely damaged. Pawluck is thankfully unscathed. This is the work of a five-time offender.

Especially on the heels of SXSW (but realistically on any given night) one can witness not only drunk driving, but what I like to call couch-driving, with the driver casually navigating, texting, putting on makeup, eating, drinking, fiddling with dials, or a myriad of tasks that can only serve to inhibit safe, precautionary driving. Lack of use of turn signals is also problematic. In other states, especially in cities, many people take breaks from driving, whether it be at college, or being young and unable to afford it, or having reliable public transportation. When one takes a break from driving and returns to it, full adult comprehension of the power of the machine is humbling. For Texans, who often are unable to break this reliance on their car, driving becomes so familiar that it becomes automatic behavior, rather than vigilant caution. This in effect seems to lead to a casual sense of invincibility.

The most unnerving part is that Texas seems to both recognize and understand the problem at hand, but aren't sure how to address the heart of the matter: that drinking and driving is deeply engrained in society's cultural norms that it is no longer shameful or even uncommon to be or know someone convicted of drunk driving. The state's own online traffic driving school, requires DWI offenders to pass a safety course and poses, "So what's the deal with Texas? Why are these numbers so high? Do drivers not care about the prospect of having to take defensive driving in Texas? Do you they not care about the prospect of dying behind the wheel? While nobody really knows for sure, one thing is certain. If drivers don't take drinking and driving seriously, things are only going to get worse."

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