Steven Walters: Wisconsin avoids one list of worst drunken driving states

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Steven Walters
Monday, May 5, 2014

It may be a first: A new study does not include Wisconsin in its list of 10 states with the worst drunken driving problems.

The report by the Foundation for Advancing Alcohol Responsibility, which calls itself a “research organization funded by the nation's largest distillers,” found 10 other states with “far worse” problems of alcohol-impaired driving.

That finding might surprise readers, given Wisconsin's deadly reputation for binge drinking, its beer-loving culture and the only state law in the nation that treats first-offense OWI as basically a traffic citation. There's also a new T-shirt on sale in retail stores—“Drink Wisconsinbly”—that asserts bragging rights.

Stop celebrating at not making that list, cheeseheads. Put the glass down.

Leaders of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) discount the foundation report and say, sorry, Wisconsin must be on anybody's “top 10” list for drunken driving problems.

“The data points of the study are flawed,” said Frank Harris, a Milwaukee native who now works in Washington, D.C., as MADD's state legislative affairs manager.

“We pay as much credence to it as we would any message on drunk driving funded by the alcohol industry,” Harris added.

Time to consider which states the grandly named Foundation for Advancing Alcohol Responsibility (FARR) listed ahead of Wisconsin for drunken driving in 2012.

FARR put North Dakota first on its worst-of-the-worst list, saying it had 10.3 drunken driving deaths per 100,000 residents and that 23.8 percent of its residents were binge drinkers. Federal officials define binge drinking as consuming five or more drinks per occasion.

“North Dakota had more deaths from drunk driving accidents per 100,000 residents than any other state in the U.S. in 2012,” the report said, adding:

“The number of drunk driving deaths in (North Dakota) actually rose by 64.2 percent over the past 10 years ending in 2012, by far the largest increase of any state in the country.”

Still, the summary of North Dakota's problems included this damning reference to Wisconsin: “Only Wisconsin had a higher percentage of people, in total, who said they engaged in binge drinking over the prior month than North Dakota.”

After North Dakota, the foundation ranked these states as having the worst drunken driving problems in 2012:

Montana, with nine drunken driving deaths per 100,000 residents; South Carolina, 7.6 deaths; Wyoming, 6.9 deaths; Mississippi, six deaths; Oklahoma, 5.4 deaths; Alabama and South Dakota, 5.3 deaths each; West Virginia, 5.1 deaths, and Texas, five deaths.

The study said Wisconsin had 3.5 deaths from drunken driving per 100,000 residents in 2012—about one-third North Dakota's fatality rate.

Wisconsin had 200 alcohol-related fatalities in 2012—a 33 percent drop from 2007.

Federal statistics say the five states that had the most alcohol-impaired fatalities in 2012 were Texas, 1,296; California, 802; Florida, 697; Pennsylvania, 408, and Ohio, 385.

Pete Madland, executive director of the Tavern League of Wisconsin, said the 33 percent drop over five years in Wisconsin drunken driving-related fatalities was “encouraging.”

But Madland said the Tavern League still wants to “target the repeat offender and high blood-alcohol content (BAC) offender, while also putting more resources into our Safe Ride Programs across the state.”

Last year, Madland added, Wisconsin drinkers got about 75,000 free Safe Rides home.

MADD's Harris, who also studies national statistics, said Wisconsin's rate of drunken driving fatalities is “above the national average, but no longer the worst or near the worst.”

Harris also said that's also true for underage drinking and binge drinking in Wisconsin. The latest statistics say Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine and North Dakota have greater problems with underage and binge drinking than Wisconsin, Harris said.

MADD has this “wish list” of what Wisconsin legislators should do to fight drunken driving: Require ignition interlocks for all convicted drunken drivers who choose to drive during license suspension periods. Legalize sobriety checkpoints. Make first-offense OWI a misdemeanor.

“We hope interlock legislation can move forward, at the very least,” Harris added. “We hope in 2015 to allow first offenders with a BAC of 0.08 percent to 0.14 percent the option to go to an interlock immediately after arrest for a reduced license suspension period of around six months.”

Rep. Jon Richards, D-Milwaukee, sponsored Assembly Bill 738 to require ignition interlocks for anyone convicted of drunken driving. It went nowhere.

Steven Walters is a senior producer for the nonprofit public affairs channel WisconsinEye. Email stevenscwalters@gmail.com.

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