Meeting Management

What You Can Learn About Meeting Safety From SXSW

A fatal traffic accident at SXSW this year underscores the need for event organizers to make sure pedestrian safety is on their radar.

When a driver crashed through temporary barricades and into a crowd of South by Southwest (SXSW) festival-goers in downtown Austin this past March, killing four people and injuring about two dozen others, the media and other observers were swift to point fingers — but not all of them were directed toward the suspect. In an article posted to The Atlantic Cities website a day after the incident, Rob Reiter — co-founder of the Storefront Safety Council and a consultant in storefront and pedestrian safety — was quoted as saying that the City of Austin and its police department could have done more to protect SXSW attendees.

According to police reports, 21-year-old Rashad Charjuan Owens fled a nearby DUI checkpoint where he’d been stopped, and headed the wrong way down 9th Street. Eventually he barreled into pedestrians who were walking along blocked-off Red River Street outside of The Mohawk and Cheer Up Charlies, two SXSW venues. Owens has been charged with capital murder.

In a recent interview with Convene, Reiter said that deploying steel barriers such as bollards instead of the temporary barricades that were used at SXSW would have stopped the vehicle. “These are just standard wooden and plastic barricades with no impact resistance whatsoever,” said Reiter, who often works with cities like Las Vegas and Anaheim to prepare for music and food festivals as well as other outdoor events. “These are considered to be visual deterrents only. If there isn’t a steel barrier between [the crowd] and cars, your event is vulnerable.”

Even though the responsibility may ultimately lie in the hands of the city or venue, event organizers still can double-check that the job has been done properly, Reiter said. In Austin, street closures for SXSW are under the control of multiple city agencies, including the police department.

“SXSW is an unusual event in that it mostly occurs in existing businesses and venues, as opposed to being located in a single location with a fence around it,” said Elizabeth Derczo, publicist for SXSW Music, who added that individual venues are responsible for their own security and that SXSW acts as a liaison between local businesses and the city.

Within 12 hours of the incident, SXSW had set up SXSW Cares, a fund for victims that as of mid-April had raised $183,304. In late March, the Austin City Council announced that it had approved a post-event review of SXSW — due for completion this month — that will address everything from traffic management to staffing to the city’s capacity for temporary events.

Meanwhile, Reiter says that planners should always play a role when it comes to pedestrian safety, starting with asking about what provisions have been made for crowd control and how the responsible organization plans to keep vehicles and pedestrians separate. “Never assume that the venue knows what it’s doing in any place where people and cars can come into contact,” he said, “because there might be a lot of reasons why the way that they normally do things isn’t the right way for your event.”

A Similar Situation

In 2003, an elderly man drove through the Santa Monica Certified Farmers Market, killing 10 people and injuring 63 more. After a review, the National Transportation Safety Board concluded that the lack of a barrier system to protect pedestrians contributed to the severity of the accident. The board also recommended that the city “install a temporary rigid barrier system at the closure limits of the Santa Monica Certified Farmers Market to provide a physical barrier to errant vehicles entering the market.”

“Everybody assumed that because the streets were blocked off, everything was safe,” Rob Reiter said, “and that assumption, of course, was completely wrong.”

Jennifer N. Dienst

Contributing Editor Jennifer N. Dienst is a freelance writer based in Charleston, South Carolina.