New drunk-driving penalties a step to ‘change the culture’

Louis Weisberg, Staff writer

Wisconsin began 2017 with its strongest laws ever to deter drunken driving. But advocates fighting the problem say lawmakers didn’t go far enough.

Why? The new law still leaves Wisconsin the only state where a first offense is treated as a civil violation rather than a crime. Here, drunken driving is often treated as the legal equivalent of a speeding ticket — although far costlier.

Now, there’s new urgency for addressing the issue: After years of decline, Wisconsin — along with the rest of the nation — experienced in 2015 a surge in traffic accidents in general, as well as those in which alcohol was a factor. Although alcohol-related crashes had fallen steeply since 1990, they rose nationally by 7 percent in 2015 over 2014 — the largest increase in 50 years.

Washington, D.C.-based Mothers Against Drunk Driving estimates the average driver uses a vehicle while inebriated 80 times before he or she is caught, so the crash data far understates the problem.

Fortunately, legislators on both sides of the aisle agree more needs to be done. Several members of the Assembly and the Senate say they plan to keep the issue high on their agendas this year.

“We’re trying to do nothing less than change the culture in Wisconsin around drinking and driving,” said state Sen. Chris Larson, D-Milwaukee. “Too many people know that it’s a slap on the wrist if you get caught, so people do it and they do it over and over.”

Larson said the new law represents progress, but it’s far from adequate. For one thing, he and others think the first offense should be treated as a crime.

Fitzgerald, Tavern League roadblock

For years, Larson and other advocates for ending drunken driving in Wisconsin have watched the Assembly pass bipartisan bills on the problem, only to have them scuttled in the Senate by Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau. In 2016, state Rep. Jim Ott, R-Mequon, introduced seven bills to increase penalties for drunken driving and reintroduced half a dozen other bills that had died in the previous session — bills to increase minimum sentences for drivers who injure or kill another person and offenders found driving drunk on more than one occasion.

All of them died at Fitzgerald’s hands

On the Senate side in 2015, state Sen. Tim Carpenter, D-Milwaukee, authored four of six bills designed to toughen drunken-driving penalties. Fitzgerald buried those bills, too.

It’s not that Fitzgerald isn’t aware of the problem. In the past, he’s said the Wisconsin legal system couldn’t handle the volume of cases that would result if everyone in Wisconsin who drove while intoxicated was hauled into court.

The Wisconsin Department of Corrections projects it may have to spend as much as $129 million annually as well as another $157 million to construct a dozen drug abuse centers to accommodate the additional offenders under the new law.

Chris Larson
State Sen. Chris Larson says the goal is not to stop people from drinking but rather to stop them from drinking irresponsibly.

Ott has insisted the cost estimates are exaggerated.

Against this backdrop, then, it was a sea change when the Senate passed the state’s new law on a voice vote, which is only used for noncontroversial legislation. The Assembly vote was 95-1. Even the most powerful opponent of such laws, the Tavern League of Wisconsin, registered in the law’s favor.

“The Tavern League in Wisconsin, it’s one of the more powerful ones in the country — and there are few that are as well-organized,” said Frank Harris, state government affairs director for Mothers Against Drunk Driving. In the past, the league and its lobbyists have used that clout to kill any bills that might interfere with group members’ businesses.

The league’s approval of last year’s bill led to new optimism among advocates who’ve been pushing for years to muster an adequate response to the problem.

Wisconsin’s problem

Still, the new law is probably not much comfort for friends and family of the 190 people who died — and the 2,900 who were injured — in alcohol-related crashes in 2015, according to Wisconsin Department of Transportation data. That year, 5,174 alcohol-related crashes occurred in the state.

That same year, the state recorded 24,000 convictions for drunken-driving offenses.

Intoxicated drivers have always been an exceptional problem in Wisconsin due to the culture of alcohol stemming from the state’s ethnic makeup and storied brewing history. It’s as hard to imagine the state without beer as without cheese.

Unfortunately, the state’s enthusiasm for drinking has led to pervasive addiction and abuse. In study after study, Wisconsin ranks near the top for alcohol consumption and abuse per capita. Carinsurancecomparison.com ranks Wisconsin the fourth most dangerous in the nation because of drunken driving. WalletHub places the state fifth from the bottom in terms of having effective drunken-driving penalties.

Wisconsin’s alcohol problem came to worldwide attention last year with the release of a study by 24/7 Wall St. that found seven of the 10 “drunkest” cities in America are in the state, led by Appleton, which ranked No. 1. The study found that nearly 27 percent of people living in Appleton drink unhealthy amounts of alcohol.

Ignition interlock expansion

There’s no shortage of strategies to combat drunken driving more effectively, or of lawmakers eager to support them. Larson and Sen. Van Wanggaard, R-Racine, have said they plan to reintroduce bills to enhance the effectiveness of ignition interlock devices installed on offenders’ cars. A convicted driver must blow into it and, if his or her breath exceeds a certain alcohol content, the vehicle won’t start.

Wisconsin and 28 other states use the devices, which MADD’s Harris calls “in-car probation officers.” According to him, there are 240 ignition interlocks in Wisconsin right now and such devices have stopped 156,000 attempts to drive drunk over the past 5 1/2 years.

But the law that enables use of the devices is more than 7 years old and contains loopholes. For example, Larson said under the current law, the devices are not ordered until after the second offense, and they only apply to vehicles registered in the offender’s name. Sober-driving advocates want a law that would make first-time offenders install ignition interlocks on all the vehicles they drive.

There are other bills in the hopper. Wanggaard plans this year to reintroduce a proposal to revoke a person’s license permanently if he or she has five or more OWI offenses. Ott has said he plans to reintroduce bills to require a minimum 18-month prison sentence for fifth and sixth offenses and a mandatory 7-year sentence for committing a homicide while driving drunk.

The new law in a nutshell

The law that rang in the new year stiffens penalties for operating a vehicle while intoxicated and makes a fourth drunken-driving offense always a felony. Prior to this law — sponsored by state Rep. Jim Ott, R-Mequon, a fourth offense was a felony if committed within five years of a third offense.

The law also increases maximum penalties for a fifth OWI to five years or more in prison. That’s at least two years more than under the previous law.

OWIs are issued to people caught driving with blood alcohol levels of 0.08 or higher.

Maximum sentences for seventh, eighth and ninth offenses increase from five years to seven years and six months. The maximum sentence for a 10th or subsequent offense increased to a decade in prison.

Drugs, smartphones, bad roads also create driving perils

Drinking is not the only cause of traffic wrecks and fatalities. Other substances, such as heroin, now play a comparable role in driving impairment, says Lt. Nate Clarke, executive officer of the Wisconsin State Patrol’s southeast region.

Clarke said the state also is seeing a big uptick in collisions caused by drivers who are distracted by electronic devices such as smartphones. The state currently bans texting and driving, but other activities, such as searching the internet, are legal while driving. Officers have a hard time enforcing the texting ban, Clarke says, because they can’t see what drivers are doing on their phones.

Clarke was heartened by a law enacted last year preventing drivers from using handheld devices in construction, utility and work zones. But he says more needs to be done to address the problem.

Another challenge is the highway patrol, which Clarke says is understaffed. In fact, he says the state’s highway patrol is the lowest-funded per capita in the nation, except for Hawaii, which doesn’t have a state patrol.

Since most crashes occur on state highways and municipal roads, some experts say it doesn’t help that the state’s roadways are ranked third worst in the nation.