Two people were killed and twenty-three injured when a drunk driver plowed into a crowd of people in downtown Austin last night. More information continues to be released, but we can all agree that this was a terrible tragedy. While I am crestfallen, what saddens me is that I wasn’t surprised to hear about it. To some degree we’ve been celebrating unchecked alcoholism with a plethora of free entertainment, alcohol and fun distractions.
I am from Austin originally and have attended the festival since the 1990s. Over the past few years it’s become more and more of a festival for outsiders than locals. We simply rent Austin from the people who live here. Slowly and systematically Austinites have become vendors rather than attendees and content contributors of SXSW. The money that comes to the city is from outsiders, so the festival caters to and prominently features them. It’s much harder for an Austin performer to book a show during SXSW than someone from England or Japan. The danger with such a sea change is that local perception changed with it, everyone in Austin thinks SXSW is nothing more than a binge-drinking free for all. Every year more and more of my friends leave Austin when the festival starts, due to the head aches that the thousands of outsiders bring.
The man who was named responsible for this tragedy had next to nothing to do with SXSW. However, we should still take notice of this event. I’ll explain why… My father is an auditor specializing in fraud. He routinely performs risk assessments. I grew up learning about risk, how to assess it and how to minimize it. When thinking about this tragedy from the lens of risk assessment, SXSW’s is off the charts. Think about it. We have nowhere close to enough taxis in Austin to meet with demand, the city disapproves of ride sharing services like SideCar and Lyft, there is a nearly non-existent public transit system and the city is especially happy to tow the people that leave their cars downtown. Obviously it’s up to us as individuals to make smart choices, but I’m not entirely sure we are setting ourselves up for success here in Austin.
When mulling over the seriousness of what happened today another high profile incident came to mind. The great bonfire tragedy in 1999 at Texas A&M had a similar affect on people of Texas. I was a student at that time. We all knew that the colossal bonfire the Aggie’s built every year was a reckless alcohol-fueled engineering free-for-all. I am a proud graduate of rival University of Texas, but my friends who went to A&M often said it was ‘crazy’ how tall they built the bonfire. They all knew, but they trusted the powers that be to protect them. Unfortunately, it took 12 deaths and people being trapped for 24+ hours to affect change. It was well known by many people how risky and crazy the bonfire was, but we did nothing until it was too late.
I believe that most people try to make smart decisions about drinking before we get behind the wheel, but many folks still don’t know how. I’ve thrown parties, too, but this year we actually arranged for our transportation, and gave our guests a shuttle to the venue from 2 popular hotels. We’ve all had a few too many, we have all pushed the limits. I know I have. I don’t blame anyone for drinking alcohol, it’s every adult’s right to do so. We just need to do so with care. The irony of all this is that I’ve been working to promote my client who has created a breathalyzer for the smartphone throughout this festival. Every person we showed the product to was impressed and said they had to have one. Nobody said that they didn’t need or want access to a breathalyzer. Hopefully we can learn from this experience to make better choices and fix what’s broken in Austin.
My heart goes out to those we lost, those who were injured and affected by the car crash last night. We have to do better. We have to do what we can to prevent this from ever happening again.