Steven Walters: Saferides take keys away from drinkers

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Steven Walters
Monday, October 12, 2015

Wisconsin is on track to spend more than $1 million this year giving drunks rides homes, so they won’t kill or injure themselves and others while driving.

And, Wisconsin taxpayers, it’s not your money.

“There’s no other program like Saferide in the country,” said Pete Madland, executive director of the Tavern League of Wisconsin. “Nothing even comes close.”

Madland said Saferide has saved lives and is a major reason for the 50 percent drop in the number of alcohol-related deaths from vehicle crashes statewide—from 326 in 2004 to 162 in 2014.

Saferide is paid for by a combination of surcharges on drunken-driving convictions and funds raised by the 62 participating local tavern leagues statewide. Every drunken-driving conviction includes up to $92 in fines for Saferide, for example.

State Department of Transportation figures show an explosion in Saferides:

-- Last year, Saferide provided a record 82,317 rides to those that bar owners, bartenders and friends insisted were too impaired to drive. That was a 26 percent increase in just three years.

-- Saferides cost a total of $961,627 last year—a 28 percent increase in three years.

-- Saferides in Madison and Dane County cost the most last year—$110,133. Rides in the city of Racine cost $79,212 and, in the La Crosse-area, $57,219.

In Rock County, there were 995 Saferides last year at an average cost of $29.45, according to DOT figures.

But DOT figures also show a huge variance in average cost of the rides. Last year, for example, the average Saferide in Polk County cost $2.98, and in Wood County, $3.24. But the average ride cost 10 times that—$33.72—in Oconto County and, in Racine County, $29.45.

Madland said several factors explain that gap in average ride-home costs.

The costs of rides home in rural areas are higher, Madland said, because the intoxicated person has to be taken a longer distance and rural communities may not have a taxi service.

In areas without public transportation, Madland said bar owners and bartenders look for a “good Samaritan” who is sober and willing to drive the impaired person home for a negotiated fee. That fee can vary widely.

The 62 local tavern leagues “create their own rules” that govern reimbursements for Saferides and how often someone can use the program, Madland said.

Some local tavern leagues are willing to let someone who is impaired use the Saferide program as often as needed, reasoning that every ride “takes a drunk off the road,” for example, Madland said. But other local leagues put limits on how often someone can use Saferide to be “taken back to mommy’s house.”

“The philosophy is different from program to program,” Madland said.

Asked how abuses are prevented, including preventing someone from making a lot of money by driving a relative or best friend only a few blocks home, Madland said, “Every ride that is given crosses my desk.”

Follow-up questions about high reimbursements, or other potential problems, are referred back to local Saferide “coordinators” in each participating community to resolve.

And sometimes DOT officials have follow-up questions about Saferide costs, Madland said.

Saferide’s success is part of a larger ongoing debate in the Capitol: Should first-offense drunken driving be a crime?

Wisconsin is the only state where first-offense OWI is a civil violation, although Republican Rep. Jim Ott and Democratic Rep. Terese Berceau are co-sponsoring a bill that would make it a misdemeanor crime punishable by both fine and jail term.

Other DOT figures document progress in fighting drunken driving, although everyone concedes that it remains a problem for Wisconsin:

-- Both OWI arrests and convictions dropped by more than one-third between 2004 and 2014.

-- The number of alcohol-related crashes in that 10-year period dropped by 45 percent, from 8,931 to 4,932.

-- The number of alcohol-related injuries decreased by 57 percent in that same period, from 6,211 to 2,694.

Madland said the Tavern League opposes making first-offense OWI a misdemeanor, because Wisconsin’s civil penalties—including suspension of driver’s licenses and high fines and forfeitures—are tougher than in many other states that consider it a crime.

But Ott said statistics prove him right: Almost every other day in Wisconsin, someone is killed in an alcohol-related crash.

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