Rep. Jim Ott just asked an important question.
"We continue to have so many outrageous crashes in Wisconsin," the Mequon Republican told the Associated Press. "Do we just sit back and say, 'We have to live with this,' or are we going to try to do something?"
We are going to try to do something.
And the latest proposal by Ott and Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, is a good place to start, though it doesn't come close to doing enough.
The two lawmakers want to get tougher on first-time and repeat offenders.
Wisconsin is the only state in the nation that treats a first offense for DUI as a civil violation, similar to a traffic ticket. Ott and Darling would require all first-time offenders to appear in court, and those with blood alcohol levels of 0.15 percent — nearly twice the legal limit — or higher would be charged with a misdemeanor.
Third-time offenders would face a felony charge, and judges could order police to seize offenders' vehicles. Drunken drivers who injure or kill people could face mandatory minimum sentences.
Tougher penalties make sense. But so does more treatment for people who abuse alcohol. Special courts dealing exclusively with drunken drivers have shown some promise in preventing further offenses. So have devices that prevent cars from being driven if the driver is drunk.
All of that requires money, which should come from a modest increase in Wisconsin's teensy tax on beer and other alcohol. Drinkers wouldn't even notice the few extra pennies they'd be charged. And the benefits of a slightly higher beer tax would be safer roads for all.
If state lawmakers can't swallow that, then they should find the money elsewhere in the state budget. Drunken driving should be a priority in the coming legislative session.
Incremental improvements have been made in recent years. But much more is needed to address Wisconsin's drunken driving scourge.
Everyone should answer Ott's question the same way: Yes, we are going to do something to stop the endless string of deadly crashes. Yes, we are going to do more to change Wisconsin's heavy drinking culture. Yes, we are going to get the worst repeat offenders off the roads for good.