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View from around the state: Better laws needed to curb drunken driving

— From the Janesville Gazette

When the Tavern League of Wisconsin supports a bill to “crack down” on repeat drunken drivers, that’s probably a sign the measure doesn’t go far enough to address the problem.

The bill in question calls for revoking for at least 10 years the driver’s licenses of people with four drunken driving offenses or those with two or more OWI offenses and two or more other “qualifying convictions,” such as vehicular homicide.

But the bill’s problem is that many repeat offenders already drive without a license. Why should the Legislature expect people with a track record of poor judgment to stop driving for lack of a valid driver’s license?

Local legislators asked about this bill offered other ideas for combating drunken driving.

“It is true that suspending or revoking a driver’s license won’t guarantee that the offender will not drive again,” said Rep. Don Vruwink, D-Milton. “When a person has repeat offenses of driving while intoxicated, it is an indicator of a serious addiction. Most people learn from a first mistake. Repeat offenders obviously do not. I believe we need to get tough with repeat offenders by requiring intensive treatment and rehabilitation over a period of years rather than weeks.”

Rep. Amy Loudenbeck, R-Clinton, said the Legislature created during its last session a 24/7 sobriety program that’s led to meaningful reduction in drunken driving in other states with the same program.

She and Vruwink are on the right track with their emphasis on treating addiction, not criminalizing the addict.

Rep. Mark Spreitzer, D-Beloit, also advocates for treatment and proposed this session a bill that would help expand the number of sober-living residences in Wisconsin. He has also advocated for closing a loophole in state law related to ignition interlock devices.

Treating addiction isn’t a new concept, though many voters and politicians still believe punishing people with multiple drunken driving offenses is the way to go. Oddly enough, many legislators have opposed criminalizing first-time offenses and blanch at any bill to mandate ignition interlock devices for first-time offenders.

The Legislature takes a contradictory approach to drunken driving, seeking to severely punish repeat offenders but mostly leaving alone first-time offenders. While repeat offenders get the most attention (their mugshots appear regularly in The Gazette), first-time offenders cause the most crashes.

A 2014 Mothers Against Drunk Driving report, based on Wisconsin Department of Transportation data, found three out of four drunken drivers involved in serious or fatal crashes in Wisconsin from 1991 to 2002 didn’t have a record with a previous drunken-driving offense. (Politifact analyzed MADD’s claim and found it to be true.)

Even if all repeat offenders were removed from the road tomorrow, that wouldn’t solve Wisconsin’s drunken driving problem.

While more laws won’t necessarily stop drunken driving, better laws could discourage it. Laws are, after all, a reflection of cultural norms, and the inconvenient truth is Wisconsin drunken driving laws have been ineffectual because the culture prefers it that way.

A major hurdle to enacting effective laws is the myth that the state’s drinking culture benefits the economy, and groups such as the Tavern League of Wisconsin push this myth. But the opposite is true, as a 2013 study, “The Burden of Excessive Alcohol Use in Wisconsin,” highlights. It shows alcohol-related problems, from health care issues to lost worker productivity, cost the state $6.8 billion each year, or about $1,200 per person.

Awareness of alcohol’s devastating effects is growing, but the culture is changing too slowly. Legislators should show leadership by advocating for laws that would reduce the number of drunken drivers on the road.

Revoking the driver’s licenses of repeat offenders might play well with voters on the campaign trail, but let’s not pretend such a law actually discourages drunken driving.

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