If you’ve driven down Barton Springs Road in Austin, you may have noticed a billboard sponsored by the Texas Department of Transportation. The billboard claims that a DWI could cost you $17,000 and directs readers to the website whosdrivingtonight.com. On the website, viewers can watch a YouTube video that illustrates through social media how an unnamed woman racked up $17,422 in debt from one night of drinking and driving.
But several Austinites have questioned the validity of the $17,000 price tag that TxDOT assigns to DWIs-enough, in fact, to prompt PolitiFact to research the true cost of driving drunk. Sure enough, the data that TxDOT relied on to create the billboard was taken from interviews with 30 people-a random assortment of DWI offenders, prosecutors, DPS employees, and more-rather than concrete data.
The video from whosdrivingtonight.com shows a brief overview of where the $17,000 went, from the tow truck to bail and lawyer payments to a license fee. It also shows other non-monetary losses that the woman suffers, like missing out on a lake trip with friends, being dumped by her boyfriend, and getting fired-all of which, of course, are not guaranteed by a DWI.
PolitiFact found that a more accurate average of the cost of a DWI would be around $13,000. However, there are dozens of variables that even that number doesn’t account for. Attorney fees, fines, and insurance rate adjustments can vary greatly from case to case. Additionally, a University of Texas mathematician who contributed to the research claimed that an accurate average cost could only be determined on a regional basis, since attorney payments and court fees fluctuate depending on where the incident occurs.
Furthermore, even the label of “DWI” could refer to an incident involving a first-time offender who didn’t cause a collision or injuries, or a fourth-time offender who caused a three-car pileup. Obviously, the price tags for these two cases would be drastically different. For the former offender, the total for a lawyer, court fees, fines, and other costs could stay in the $6,000 range.
The message at the end of TxDOT’s video is valuable: designate a driver, and avoid spending money on court costs, towing and impoundment, and alcohol education. However, perhaps it would be more persuasive if the number displayed on the billboard reflected a more conclusive study on the cost of drinking and driving. A DWI charge will inevitably take a chunk out of your paycheck, but slapping a $17,000 price tag on all DWIs overlooks a myriad of factors that play into each case.
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