Our Views: Seriously? It's time to get tough on drunken driving

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Saturday, December 7, 2013

During this festive season, people will attend many holiday parties. They'll enjoy a cocktail or two or maybe more. Then, many of these folks will drive home.

They'll think nothing of the potential ramifications of Wisconsin's drunken driving laws.

Assembly lawmakers are boasting about approving bills that would strengthen state laws. These measures, however, still must pass the Senate. Even if they do, combining these changes with current state laws is like trying to fend off the Grim Reaper with a toothpick.

The Assembly voted to charge second-time offenders with a misdemeanor crime and levy a $350 fine and five days behind bars. Assembly Bill 68 also would make a fourth offense a felony and subject to a minimum $600 fine and six months in jail.

Compared to laws designed to halt drunken driving in other states, these measures remain weak. Wisconsin is still the only state where most first offenses rate simple traffic tickets. It's not even a misdemeanor crime unless a child younger than 16 is in the car.

Wisconsin's rate of adult binge drinking—downing five or more drinks at one sitting—is highest in the nation. Wisconsin also leads in rates of alcohol dependence and alcohol abuse. Given that culture and the state's lax laws, it's no wonder, as Sen. Neal Kedzie suggested in his Nov. 15 constituents column, that Wisconsin also has the nation's top rate of drinking and driving. No wonder the Republican from Elkhorn could point to 2010 statistics that show 254 people died in alcohol-related traffic crashes and that 44 percent of traffic fatalities were linked to alcohol.

If you're still not convinced of the problem, perhaps you missed The Gazette story about Janesville's Christopher L. Preston being arrested Nov. 22 on suspicion of his sixth drunken driving incident. Maybe you missed the story of Evansville's Curt L. Baumer being accused Nov. 25 of his sixth offense.

Kedzie is cosponsor of AB 68 and another measure that would at least require first-time offenders to appear in court. He plans to introduce a bill to prohibit convicted drunken drivers from buying or leasing vehicles while their licenses are suspended or revoked. He also will draft legislation to remove exceptions from the 15-day period repeat offenders must wait to apply for occupational licenses.

These latter ideas, and proposals for ignition interlocks and impounding vehicles, might pose financial hardships on families. A more effective idea would be to require alcohol-detecting ankle bracelets on every repeat offender. If the repeater drinks, the bracelet alerts authorities, and the offender returns to jail.

Critics suggest stronger laws would push court costs hundreds of millions of dollars higher. Tougher laws, however, might deter drivers and reduce those estimates. Besides, consider not only the risks of fatal crashes but the social costs, including lost worker productivity and broken families, when drunks pile up six, eight or even 10 convictions. If court costs are a concern, offset them by boosting the state's miniscule beer and alcohol taxes, which haven't risen in decades.

Alcohol is woven into Wisconsin's cultural fabric. If lawmakers want to stop the resulting carnage on our highways, they must get serious and resist the moneyed interests of the powerful alcohol lobby.

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