Shortly before one o’clock on Thursday morning, a car turned onto Red River in Austin—a street lined with rock clubs and music venues, and one that was barricaded off for five blocks to allow pedestrians and cyclists to move freely—and struck and killed two people who were getting onto a moped. Before the car stopped, it had driven through the crowd, leaving the total number of injured at 23.
That’s a staggering number of people to be struck by one driver, and it’s hard to imagine the circumstances leading up to the incident. According to Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo, the driver had been stopped for DWI on the I-35 access road, and chose to flee the scene. As the Daily Texan reports:
In a joint press conference, Acevedo and Harry Evans, Austin Fire Department chief of staff, said the incident began when an APD officer initiated a traffic stop outside the Shell Gas Station on the intersection of I-35 and 9th streets. The driver weaved through the gas station lot and accelerated against the flow of traffic on 9th Street. When APD officers tried to overtake the vehicle, the driver took a right turn down Red River Street at a “high rate of speed,” Acevedo said.
This is an unprecedented thing to happen at SXSW, where the newsworthy incidents tend to involve fans tearing down fences, and the common problems tend to be overcrowded venues. Longtime Austin music writer Michael Corcoran said on Twitter shortly after the accident that this is the first fatality of its kind at SXSW; Chief Acevedo said that he’d never seen anything like it in his seven years on the job.
The city of Austin has developed a traffic plan that works for SXSW over the years—closures of many downtown streets, especially those with the bulk of the foot traffic, like Sixth Street and Red River, have successfully limited these incidents in the past.
Our hearts certainly go out to the families of those killed and injured, and our best wishes are with those who are in the hospital. As people both in downtown Austin and on the Internet expressed their shock, the sentiment that was hard to shake—and familiar to anyone who’s spent time at the music portion of SXSW—is that this could have easily been any of them. The intersection of 10th and Red River, where the accident occurred, is a particularly well-trafficked intersection, and one at which people, because of the barricades and the masses of people, feel safe. The people on the moped were, presumably, on their way home after a fun night out, and the dozens of other people struck were similarly attracted to the area for a good time.
All of which leaves the next few days of SXSW in a strange place. Canceling events probably wouldn’t help anything—it’s hard to imagine what that would solve, at any rate, with tens of thousands of people in Austin specifically to go to those events—but it’s equally hard to picture anyone feeling good about performing, serving, or reveling at free-beer parties all day long on the same street where people were killed the night before. There’s no solution to that problem, but these things cast a dark cloud over the massive party that is SXSW. It’s pointless to cancel—and probably not even particularly viable—but tacky to continue.
One might hope, ultimately, that the next few days of SXSW are a bit more sober than the festival tends to be. At the very least, it’d be respectful of the dead and injured for the bands that play those free-beer parties to take a moment and consider the gravity of what’s happened. And while this incident appears to be the sort of outlier for which it’s impossible to prepare, it’s nonetheless also an opportunity for SXSW and the brands that sponsor it to consider the culture of excess that the festival, as it’s currently set up, encourages. A little bit more sobriety and consideration won’t cost anyone at SXSW, anyway—and last night, too many people already paid a high price.