Wisconsin's blind eye on drunk driving - WKOW 27: Madison, WI Breaking News, Weather and Sports

Wisconsin's blind eye on drunk driving

MADISON (WKOW) -- Wisconsin is known for its beer and drinking, but the ugly side to that image is the state's horrible reputation when it comes to drunk driving.

Sky-high rates of Operating While Intoxicated have resulted in thousands of traffic-related deaths.      

If there is any chance for Wisconsin to clean up its image when it comes to drunk driving, the consensus is that harsher penalties are needed.

But as 27 News found out, making that happen is easier said than done.

"We have some of the worst rates in the country for first-time offenders and people who are drinking and driving," said Sen. Chris Larson (D-Milwaukee), who has introduced tougher OWI legislation.

The numbers more than back that up.

From 2006-2009, 23.7 percent of Wisconsin motorists had driven drunk at least once.

That's the highest rate of drunk driving in the entire country.

Wisconsin also had the tenth highest rate of alcohol-related traffic fatalities in 2010, at 36 percent.

"The proof is in the outcome that we have some of the most lax drunk driving laws in the country," said Sen. Larson.

But, the laws aren't just lax; they're the weakest in entire country.

Wisconsin is the only state in America where a first-time OWI offense results in a traffic citation instead of a misdemeanor.

Its one of only two states where drunk driving isn't an automatic felony until a fifth offense.
But, a lot of politicians and advocates against drunk driving told 27 News those laws will likely never change, because of one organization: The Tavern League of Wisconsin. 

The Tavern League lobbies on behalf bars and restaurants that serve alcohol.

Those who oppose them say they're so influential, that publicly criticizing them could result in unwanted retaliation, such as funding cuts or opposition in elections.

But they anonymously told 27 News that the league is definitely responsible for Wisconsin's weak OWI laws.

That's something Tavern League officials strongly dispute.

"This idea that we're soft on drunk driving, just is not true," said Pete Madland, Executive Director of the Tavern League.

Madland said, if anything, the Tavern League supports tougher laws.

"I challenge anybody to come up with any data or any proof that we have opposed any drunk driving laws that got tougher on repeat, or high BAC (blood alcohol content) offenders," said Madland.

While the legislative record shows that to be mostly true, the Tavern League does oppose the criminalization of first-time offenses.

They are also against the use of sobriety checkpoints.

Wisconsin is one of only 12 states that doesn't use them.

"Then, how do you really do a better job of deterring people from driving drunk?," asked Nina Emerson, who runs UW's Resource Center on Impaired Driving.

Emerson supports making a first OWI offense a misdemeanor crime, and said statistics show that sobriety checkpoints work.

"You have to believe that you can possibly be caught," said Emerson. "And that is what it does, is it increases that perception that you might actually be caught."
State Rep. Josh Zepnick of Milwaukee introduced a bill to set up a pilot program for sobriety checkpoints in November 2011, but his legislative aide told 27 News its unlikely to pass anytime soon.

Others legislators are also trying to get tough on OWI offenders.

Sen. Larson put forth a bill to make ignition interlock devices mandatory for all first-time offenders.

"What we're trying to do, is move forward and making a first offense have a real life consequence is a great first step," said Sen. Larson.

Sen. Larson said it would also force a change of habit, something else the state needs for the new laws to work.

"People can point at the lawmakers and say 'look this is because of the way the laws are,' but the problem is also in the culture, of people making sure of that its not even a consideration, that if you've had two drinks you're not gonna drive," said Sen. Larson.

As fate would have it, things could actually start to change Tuesday morning.

The Assembly Committee on Transportation will hold a public hearing to discuss yet another OWI-related bill.

That bill seeks a major change: to make a third OWI offense a mandatory felony.

Capitol Bureau Chief Greg Neumann will be at that hearing and will have a full report Tuesday evening on 27 News at 5 and 6.

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