Houston Recovery Center shared a recent Zoom interview with Sheriff Ed Gonzalez of Harris County Sheriff’s Office. In it, we discuss strategies to improve impaired driving in Houston, substance use during the pandemic, what gives him hope right now, and silver linings despite the disruptions of CV19.
Houston leads the nation in fatalities related to DWI crashes, according to a Chronicle article in 2018. Is that still the case?
Yes, it’s still the case. We always seem to be leading in those categories, and it’s very unfortunate. Even during Covid19. We thought with less drivers it would actually lessen, but we are still seeing an uptick.
I think it’s because people get careless or think there’s not other motorists out-and-about, but clearly there are.
I think too many people are driving impaired. And we’re still seeing a lot of people who are unrestrained, as well.
What will it take for Houston to move the needle and make a difference in that number?
It’s been going on for quite a while. But I’m always the eternal optimist.
It takes continuously raising awareness and using a collaborative approach to address it. It’s three strategies: enforcement, intervention, and prevention.
One of the strategies that I started running with was creating more of a collaborative approach bringing together stakeholders in a regional taskforce to reduce impaired driving. We wanted to take a holistic approach to it. We brought law enforcement together, advocate groups like MADD and Kailee Mills Foundation, TxDOT with their #EndTheStreak campaign, medical physicians, and traffic engineers to assess what could be done in this region to try to address the different facets of what happens.
It’s bringing everyone’s skillset to the table in a collaborative way to attack these issues from different places. It needs a lot more education.
It’s all to improve the driving culture in Harris County. It’s not just one thing. It’s distracted driving, impaired driving, underage drinking, unrestrained passengers or drivers. I try to make a lot of the crash scenes because I want to see first-hand what the different factors were… speed is always a common one, unrestrained drivers, as well. I’ve come to see that some of these incidents were preventable — if someone would have just been wearing a seat belt.
We had a lot of cases of underage drinking. Many times, believe it or not, it starts in the home. The family parties. It’s kind of a rite of passage, if you well. Those things need to change, and the serious consequences that come with it.
People don’t understand, “Oh I’m just drinking a few. I’m ok. The worst that will happen is I’ll get arrested.” They don’t realize the worst that can happen is you can lose your life or cause the death of someone else.
In HCSO, we’re expanding our DWI unit, we doubled the number of motorcycle deputies that we have, as well as every patrol district now has a traffic unit assigned to it to deal with some of the speeding issues that are more localized.
How has the pandemic affected substance use?
I think many of the issues that were already occurring are magnified or amplified because of the pandemic. It’s about coping. A lot of people are unemployed, the holidays are coming up… There was already drug usage or addiction to cope with issues, so now it’s just magnified. People continue to spiral out-of-control and use it to heal wounds. It was there before, and the pandemic is just one more stressor now. It’s a big issue. It’s still out there.
What gives you hope right now as the pandemic rolls on?
By nature, I’m always optimistic. I hope the pandemic is giving us an opportunity to really look at a lot of different systems and how we could be doing better. I think we see a lot of disparity.
What gives me optimism now is we’re resilient people, and I hope we can learn from these.
Any silver linings you’ve recognized despite the disruptions of CV19?
It’s been a difficult, challenging year — and sad for so many who have lost loved ones. We’ve lost three members to CV19.
We still see that people are engaged and care about safety, support small businesses, people are resilient and push forward. It’s given people an opportunity to reconnect with family more because of the isolation. But that has also created hardships such as domestic violence, because sometimes things get amplified with cabin fever.
Congrats on your recent re-election!
I’m so excited and happy. It gives me an opportunity to continue advancing forward and doing more around recovery and substance abuse.
Houston Recovery Center obviously is very near and dear to me because of my personal history with [helping it get started]. And we’re big fans of it – and Major Mike Lee is here on my team as well. I’m just so proud of the work you and the whole team has done over there to continue advancing that work — so we know with Leonard and others that you’re a terrific partner that stands ready to help us anytime we’re talking about new ways of doing something or expanding something here and there. We know we can count on you, so we’re very grateful for that partnership with you.
Thank you. I look forward to continuing to serve.