The Legislature is rolling ever so slowly in the right direction toward tougher and smarter drunken driving laws.
If only lawmakers would step on the gas.
The state Senate this week sent a bill to the Assembly that would revoke — for at least a decade — the driver’s license of any person convicted of driving drunk for a fourth time.
That would make it harder for chronic drunken drivers to get to work and back, some critics have noted, because those offenders would no longer be eligible for occupational licenses that allow driving to a job.
But more important, Wisconsin’s roads would be safer because many of the worst OWI violators would be banned from getting behind the wheel.
And if those repeat offenders continued to drive without licenses, they could face fines up to $10,000 and a year in jail. In addition, to get a driver’s license reinstated after a decade of staying out of trouble, offenders would have to undergo an alcohol assessment and agree to a safe driving plan.
Congratulations to Sen. Van Wanggaard, R-Racine, and other supporters for steering this proposal through the Senate, which voted unanimously for passage. A former police officer, Wanggaard reconstructed and investigated drunken-driving crashes in his past career. Alarmingly, 1,859 drivers were convicted of their fourth or higher OWI charge during 2015.
“These drivers we are targeting with this legislation have had opportunities to seek treatment and correct their unacceptable behavior,” Wanggaard said during testimony at the state Capitol this fall. “Because they have not, we must take action to keep them off the roadways to protect Wisconsin communities.”
The Assembly should now act so Senate Bill 135 becomes law.
The Senate this week also sent to the governor’s desk Assembly Bill 98, which will require all repeat offenders (and some first-time drunken drivers with especially high blood-alcohol levels) to operate only vehicles that are equipped with ignition interlock devices. The devices prevent ignition if they detect alcohol on a driver’s breath. Loopholes in the law that let some drivers dodge or delay this requirement would be closed.
SB 135 and AB 98 represent small yet positive changes to better protect the public from Wisconsin’s deadly scourge of drunken drivers careening down roads in two-ton vehicles.
But so much more needs to be done.
Promising technology that tests the blood or fingernails of chronic offenders to enforce sobriety should expand. And every drunken driver should have easy access to treatment for alcohol abuse. Wisconsin remains the only state that treats a first offense as a traffic ticket. First-offenders should have to spend a night in jail, appear in court and face a misdemeanor charge.
Wisconsin is making progress but must move faster toward a more comprehensive OWI solution.