— From the Wisconsin State Journal
Driving while drunk is wrong. But it is less wrong in Wisconsin than in most other states.
That conclusion is inescapable when Wisconsin’s laws against drunken driving are compared with other states’ laws. Wisconsin’s position on drunken driving is a disgrace that lawmakers should correct in 2016.
Lives are at stake.
Wisconsin historically has maintained weak laws against drunken driving. Though the state has fortified its punishments in recent years, it remains far behind other states.
Wisconsin is the only state that generally punishes a first drunken driving offense with merely a ticket. Repeat offenders generally are let off easier in Wisconsin as well. For a fifth offense, a drunken driver in Wisconsin faces six months to six years in prison. In Illinois the punishment is four to 15 years in prison.
Not only do Wisconsin’s weak laws send a message that the state doesn’t think it’s all that bad to drive while drunk, but the laws also fail to keep offenders from repeating the offense multiple times.
As a result, Wisconsin drivers and pedestrians are at greater risk of being injured or killed by impaired drivers.
Drunken driving is involved in a larger percentage of fatal traffic accidents in Wisconsin than in any other state, according to Mothers Against Drunk Driving. In 2014, 162 people in Wisconsin died in accidents involving alcohol.
Several lawmakers are pushing to toughen the state’s laws against drunken driving. Sen. Chris Larson, D-Milwaukee, is preparing a bill requiring all first-time drunken driving offenders to have an ignition interlock device installed on their vehicles to prevent them from driving while impaired.
Another bill, Assembly Bill 352, would require all first-time offenders to appear in court to plead to the charge, rather than simply pay a fine as current law allows.
Still other bills attack the problem of repeat offenders. Assembly Bill 536, and its companion Senate Bill 455, would make a fourth drunken driving offense a felony and would make other changes to stiffen penalties against serial drunken drivers.
Opponents claim new legislation is unnecessary and costly. They cite a nearly 50 percent decline in deaths from accidents involving alcohol from 2003 to 2014 in Wisconsin. But that argument fails when you consider that all traffic fatalities in the state declined by more than 40 percent during the same period as safety measures and knowledge improved.
Furthermore, while some of the increased punishments will raise state costs — the bill strengthening penalties against repeat offenders is estimated to cost at least $400,000 for added assistant district attorneys and public defenders’ time — the relatively small price is well worth the lives to be saved.
And if more money is needed, a small increase in Wisconsin’s tiny beer tax could raise millions of dollars for penalties and prevention, including treatment and high-tech monitoring of alcoholics to encourage sobriety.
Wisconsin has a deadly drunken driving problem. State laws should be strengthened to discourage driving while drunk and to get repeat offenders off the roads.