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View from around the state: No excuse for ignoring DUI bills

— From the Wisconsin State Journal

drunk-100810State Rep. Jim Ott keeps fighting the good fight against Wisconsin’s drunken driving scourge.

More of his colleagues in the Wisconsin Legislature should join him.

Ott, R-Mequon, is again introducing a bill to require everyone charged with drunken driving to appear in court. Too many first-time offenders now dodge this responsibility by sending a lawyer in their place and mailing in the fine.

“Sometimes just the act of walking into the courtroom, seeing the judge sitting up there and maybe having a judge bawl you out for what you did — maybe the person says, ‘You know what, I don’t ever want to experience that again,'” Ott said Tuesday.

He’s right.

The bill failed to advance last legislative session — despite unanimous support from committees in both houses of the Legislature, and passage by the full Assembly. The state Senate has no excuse for failing to advance this sensible measure again.

Ott also is bringing back a bill to require consistent use of ignition locks that prevent vehicles from being started if alcohol is detected on a driver’s breath. The technology helps deter repeat offenses.

Ott wants to increase penalties for repeat offenders. He would require at least 18 months in prison for a fifth or sixth offense, rather than six months in jail. If you’re caught that many times careening down Wisconsin roads while drunk — risking innocent people’s lives — you need to be locked up to protect the public. Any treatment for alcohol abuse isn’t working and needs more serious intervention and consequence.

Additional proposals include higher penalties for drunken drivers who cause bodily harm, and mandatory confinement for DUI drivers who kill someone.

Ott wants second offenses to be misdemeanor crimes, and fourth offenses to be felonies, regardless of how much time has elapsed between convictions.

If anything, the Legislature needs to go further than Ott is requesting. Lawmakers should charge first-time offenders with a misdemeanor, for example, rather than merely issuing an expensive traffic ticket. Wisconsin is the only state in the nation that treats an initial arrest as a civil — rather than criminal — violation.

If all of those other states can treat a first DUI arrest seriously, so can Wisconsin.

Ott supports criminalizing a first offense. He cited research suggesting most people drive drunk 70 or 80 times before being caught. And first-time offenders account for more than half of all fatal drunken-driving crashes.

“First offense is more serious than a lot of people are willing to admit,” he said. But “I’m trying to get bills out there I have a chance of passing,” and that isn’t one of them.

Wisconsin needs to focus more on treatment. It should expand drug and alcohol courts across the state. Ott supports that, too.

The Associated Press just reported 185 drunken driving-related deaths and 2,660 injuries in Wisconsin during 2013, which is the latest data available from the state Department of Transportation.

Ott acknowledges his bills won’t stop every drunken driver. But they undoubtedly will improve highway safety.

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