Wisconsin might actually do something about repeat drunk drivers
Almost 2,800 drunk driving offenders in Wisconsin during 2015 were on their 7th offense or more.
By Todd Richmond
MADISON, Wis. — Wisconsin lawmakers will soon consider a bill that would strip repeat drunken drivers of their licenses for at least a decade. The Assembly passed the bill last session but it didn’t get a floor vote in the Senate. Some key things to know about the legislation:
HOW SERIOUS A PROBLEM IS REPEAT DRUNKEN DRIVING IN WISCONSIN?
Very serious. State Department of Transportation data shows that one-third of the state’s drunk-driving convictions in 2015 — the most recent data available — were repeat offenders. Put another way, the 221,576 repeat offenders were more than twice the population of Green Bay.
About 52,000 convictions were for a third offense. Nearly 2,800 were for a seventh offense or more.
WHY IS THIS SUCH AN ISSUE IN WISCONSIN?
Alcohol is ingrained in the state’s heritage and traditions. After all, Milwaukee’s major league baseball team is nicknamed the Brewers after that city’s brewing history. The state’s drunken driving laws are relatively lax; Wisconsin is the only state, for example, that treats a first offense as a traffic ticket rather than a criminal transgression. Efforts to toughen drunken driving laws have largely failed amid concerns about increasing court and incarceration costs and pushback from the powerful Tavern League of Wisconsin.
SO THE STATE CAN’T REVOKE DRUNKEN DRIVERS’ LICENSES NOW?
Yes, but only for limited periods that generally range from several months to three years.
WHAT WOULD THE BILL DO?
The DOT would be required to permanently revoke the license of anyone caught driving drunk four or more times. The agency also would have to permanently revoke the license of anyone who commits two or more drunken driving offenses and two or more convictions for serious crimes involving a vehicle. People who lose their license would have to wait 10 years before they could apply for a new one.
WHAT HAPPENED TO LAST SESSION’S BILL?
The last bill instituted permanent revocation at five or more offenses. No groups registered against it, the Wisconsin Tavern League supported it and the Assembly passed it on a voice vote, a procedure used for noncontroversial legislation. The Senate’s transportation committee passed the proposal but it never got a floor vote in that chamber. GOP Sen. Van Wanggaard, the bill’s chief Senate sponsor then, is trying again.
WHAT’S THE ARGUMENT FOR THE BILL?
Wanggaard says the state has to do something to curb repeat drunken driving and he doesn’t know what else to try “short of locking them up and throwing the key away.” He says drunken drivers must face consequences for their actions because “it doesn’t take much and somebody’s dead.”
WHAT ARE THE BILL’S PROSPECTS THIS TIME AROUND?
It’s up for a public hearing in the Senate judiciary committee on Tuesday. Wanggaard chairs that panel, and a hearing signals progress. The City of Milwaukee, the Wisconsin Chiefs of Police Association and the Wisconsin Troopers Association all have registered in favor of the bill. No groups have registered against it. Tavern league lobbyist Scott Stenger said he hadn’t seen the bill but the league supports any legislation to curb repeat offenses. It’s unclear what Republican leaders in the Assembly and Senate think about it, though. Aides for Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, who could have brought last session’s bill to the floor but didn’t, and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos didn’t reply to email messages.
WHAT OTHER IDEAS TO COMBAT DRUNKEN DRIVING ARE OUT THERE?
Sen. Alberta Darling and Rep. Jim Ott have introduced bills to create a five-year minimum prison sentence for homicide by intoxicated use of a vehicle; raise the minimum incarceration period for fifth and sixth offenses from six months to 18 months; and prohibit all repeat offenders and first-timers with a blood-alcohol percentage of 0.15 or greater from driving without an ignition interlock device, which prevents a car from starting if it detects a certain alcohol level in a driver. The interlock bill passed the Assembly in May. All three measures are up for a public hearing in Wanggaard’s judiciary committee on Tuesday as well.