Tragedy at SXSW should not leave a permanent scar on festival

Posted Friday, Mar. 14, 2014  comments  Print Reprints

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After any catastrophic event resulting in loss of life and injury — whether an act of nature, an evil man-made plot or tragic accident — it is both natural and prudent that we try to figure out if it could have been prevented or, at least, the harm to people mitigated.

So it is after the tragedy that struck early Thursday morning in Austin at the popular South by Southwest (SXSW) festival, in which a driver described as drunk tried to evade police, crashed through barricades and into a crowd of pedestrians, killing two and injuring 23, including two young people from Fort Worth.

The incident cast a pall over what has become one of the most celebrated international music, film and technology festivals, attracting thousands of people from all over the world (one of the people killed was a man from the Netherlands).

At the same time, it caused people to question whether organizers and police could have done more to protect festival-goers from such an unpredictable occurrence. Should there have been stronger barricades separating pedestrians from motorists? Should more streets have been closed at an event that has become so large?

The Austin police chief has said those questions and a full examination of the incident will be studied to see how improvements can be made, while he explained that any measures taken to secure pedestrians must be balanced by the need to keep traffic moving and provide quick access for emergency vehicles.

Many large cities, like Fort Worth, face the same issues when staging events that attract thousands of people, from a four-day arts festival to a much-touted marathon through city streets.

How do you plan for every possible incident? The truth is, you can’t.

Sure, there may be some things to be learned from this one, and after Austin completes its analysis of this tragedy and perhaps makes recommendations for improvement, other cities can consider those ideas just as many did after Boston initiated new safety measures following the bombing at that city’s marathon a year ago.

But any changes in public safety procedures should be measured, and not an overreaction to one incident. And an event as successful as SXSW shouldn’t let one person’s actions become a permanent setback.

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