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Houston area drunk driving numbers are down, but for how long?

HOUSTON – For years, Harris County has led the country in drunk driving fatalities, and as Channel 2 Investigates has shown you, tens of thousands of DWI charges are filed each year. But the coronavirus pandemic caused a dip in drunk driving numbers.

“I think there is always going to be a certain segment of the population that is always going to drink and drive,” said Sean Teare, the Harris County prosecutor who has made it his mission to bring down alcohol-related crashes and fatalities. So you’d think he’d be happy about a 45% drop in DWI cases through April, compared to the same period last year, and a 44% drop in cases just from March.

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“We are seeing a decrease, a significant decrease, but it’s not enough,” Teare said.

Julio Zaghi with Mothers Against Drunk Driving shares those reservations.

“I’m encouraged, but I know the real world. People are going to go back to their things,” Zaghi said.

Harris County isn’t alone in seeing a drop in the numbers. Fort Bend, Montgomery, and Galveston counties all reported significant decreases in DWI cases.

But the question is will the trend will stick?

While stay-home orders have kept the happy hour social butterflies and the power drinking, shut-down-the-bar crowds off the roads, there is still access to alcohol. Liquor stores have been considered essential businesses and restaurants have been allowed to sell alcohol to-go, something that Monica Richards believes has saved her family’s restaurant.

“I mean it was everything,” Richards said. “At one point, when we thought we were completely lost and we thought we were going to lose everything we had, getting the ability to do that completely changed the game.”

There are rules to alcohol-to-go. Cocktails have to be sold in kits, bottles are sealed and the customer has to mix their own drink once they leave the restaurant. It’s the same for beer and wine. You can’t just drive up, down it, and leave.

“You have to keep people responsible for what they’re doing,” says Richards.

Texas Governor Greg Abbott has hinted that alcohol-to-go may become permanent, and Richards says her customers hope so.

“They love it,” Richards said. “They’ve been asking for it for years.”

As for what impact it will ultimately have on DWIs, it’s too soon to tell. But MADD’s position is clear.

“We’re not against the sale of alcohol," Zaghi said. “The issue is getting behind the wheel after drinking.”

Sean Teare believes not much will change once things are fully reopened.

“Hurricanes, pandemics, it doesn’t matter,” Teare. “The DA’s office is here and we’re enforcing the laws."