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View from around the state: State must get tougher on drunken drivers

— From The Journal Times of Racine

How many times are we willing to tolerate someone getting caught driving drunk before we charge them with a felony?

The answer, for the moment in Wisconsin, is four times. We’d like to see that number reduced further.

Until April 25 , fourth offenses of operating while intoxicated were counted as felonies only if they were committed within five years of the previous offense. Under Senate Bill 455, signed on that date by Gov. Scott Walker, all fourth offenses will be felonies, punishable by up to six years in prison.

“Our hope is this will prevent any number of deaths in the State of Wisconsin,” Walker said at a ceremony in the state Capitol.

We hope so too, governor.

Here in the Badger State, we must do more to reconcile our drinking culture with the need to keep drunken drivers off our roads.

We know, in the cold light of sobriety, that a car traveling at a high rate of speed can turn into a deadly weapon, intentional or otherwise. A vehicle operated by a drunken driver is even more deadly, and the impairment makes that driver even less aware of the seriousness of the situation.

We’d like to see tougher penalties for second offenders when it comes to OWI. A person not sufficiently humiliated and chastened by a first-offense conviction, we would argue, is going to need more than a $350 fine and five days in jail — the minimum penalties in Wisconsin for an OWI second offense — to be persuaded to never drive drunk again.

Of course, what should be obvious in the law change making a fourth offense a felony is that a third offense is not a felony.

We think reasonable people will agree that a person who has been convicted of drunken driving three times has a problem, and is a danger to themselves and their community.

We’re hoping the governor’s signature will be followed by a period of study by the state Department of Transportation, to see if the tougher fourth-offense law reduces the number of fourth offenses, and third offenses for that matter.

If after a period of say, three years, there has not been a reduction in fourth-offense convictions — which would suggest that the law signed April 25 has not been a sufficient deterrent — we would welcome legislation making a third offense a felony.

Because Wisconsin isn’t nearly tough enough on those who get behind the wheel when they’re drunk.

Wisconsin is the only state in the nation where a first drunk driving offense is not a crime; it’s a citation.

Ask the family on Victory Avenue in Racine’s Rubberville — whose home was set ablaze April 16 when a suspected drunken driver crashed her car into it — if a citation seems like sufficient punishment.

Alcohol-related crashes killed 162 people in Wisconsin and injured nearly 2,700 in 2014, the state DOT reports.

Just as troubling: There were more than 24,000 convictions for drunken driving offenses in Wisconsin in 2014.

We need to do a better job of persuading people who would drive drunk from getting behind the wheel. Because in Wisconsin, we seem to have a problem with it.

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