Batch of bipartisan bills aimed at reducing drunken driving met with skepticism

2013-03-06T06:55:00Z Batch of bipartisan bills aimed at reducing drunken driving met with skepticismDEE J. HALL | Wisconsin State Journal | dhall@madison.com | 608-252-6132 madison.com

A bipartisan set of bills before the state Legislature that would crack down on drunken driving is getting a mixed response — including from groups whose goal is to reduce impaired driving.

The six bills introduced Monday would increase penalties for repeat drunk drivers and for first-time offenders caught with a high blood-alcohol content and make a third offense a felony rather than a misdemeanor.

One bill would set mandatory minimum sentences for drunk drivers who injure or kill someone. Another would allow authorities to seize a vehicle used by a person caught driving drunk a third or subsequent time.

"What we want to do is get a discussion started about how much tolerance we have for drunk driving," said Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, the lead sponsor on all six of the bills.

But a similar set of bills introduced in the last session failed to pass after fiscal estimates said they would cost tens of millions of dollars to implement.

Top Republicans who run the Legislature appeared cool to the idea of enacting more harsh penalties. And advocacy groups said the measures fail to incorporate known deterrents, such as police checkpoints.

"Representative (Jim) Ott and Senator Darling have offered up good ideas, and I commend them for the work they're doing on this issue," Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, said in an email Tuesday. "I'd like to take a closer look at the bills and the fiscal estimates to see if spending hundreds of millions of dollars is the best way to prevent people from driving drunk."

The package also received a lukewarm reception from Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau.

"From a leadership perspective, there are senators with varying thoughts on this issue as some believe the stiffer penalties passed in 2009 need to be evaluated," Fitzgerald spokesman Tom Evenson said in an email. "Senator Fitzgerald looks forward to having an open discussion with legislators on a course of action that is best to deter drunk driving and repeat offenses."

In 2009, the Legislature criminalized first offenses if there is a child under 16 in the vehicle and required ignition interlock devices for repeat drunk drivers or those caught with high blood-alcohol levels. The state also boosted penalties for repeat offenders.

But Sen. Tim Carpenter of Milwaukee, one of the Democratic co-sponsors on Darling's bills, said his constituents believe not enough has been done.

"They realize it's a disease, but we've got to protect the public," Carpenter said. "People are very concerned. They're extremely frustrated that the Legislature in not moving forward."

Nina Emerson, director of the UW-Madison Resource Center on Impaired Driving, countered that boosting penalties is more expensive and less effective than other measures, such as sobriety checkpoints, which are currently banned in Wisconsin.

"What people need is to have the sense of apprehension," she said. "They have to believe that there's a good chance they will be apprehended if they drive drunk."

Frank Harris, state legislative affairs manager for the national Mothers Against Drunk Driving, agreed. Harris said the bills lack other proven solutions, such as requiring all drunk drivers to install ignition interlock devices, which prevent a vehicle from starting when the driver is drunk.

His group favors requiring the devices for everyone caught driving with a blood-alcohol concentration at the legal limit of 0.08 or higher. In Wisconsin, such devices are required for first-time offenders caught with a 0.15 blood-alcohol level, those convicted of repeat offenses and anyone who refuses to take a chemical test.

"Wisconsin has limited state resources, and it should use those wisely," he said. "This is about stopping drunken driving in smart way."

Carpenter said he's open to sobriety checkpoints that would operate on days when drunk drivers are likely to be on the road, such as St. Patrick's Day or New Year's Eve. But he said many lawmakers remain concerned that such strategies are too disruptive to other drivers.

"In order to get that passed," Carpenter said, "you may need to ease into it."

Scott Stenger, a lobbyist for the Tavern League of Wisconsin, said his group has not taken a position on the bills yet.

"We want to work with authors of the bill to try to figure out, what is the goal? What is the Legislature trying to do?" Stenger said, adding that alcohol-related crashes, injuries and fatalities all have decreased in Wisconsin in recent years.

"Maybe there are other ideas that need to be addressed rather than these bills," Stenger said.

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(5) Comments

  1. wicceanti502
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    wicceanti502 - March 07, 2013 1:03 pm
    I agree.To many chiefs and not enough indians.
  2. wicceanti502
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    wicceanti502 - March 07, 2013 12:42 pm
    There are many effective way's to deal with Drunk Drivng ,that no one seems to mention.
    1st One, If you are caught driving after your licence is revoked or suspended because of a alcohol/drug convicton you go to JAIL! (that might make them think twice, if the risk is sitting in jail for a week or longer) Also your vehicle is impounded until you can drive. I cannot tell you how many driving under revocation tickets are issued to the same individual.
    This happens because the law was changed due to over crowding in the jails. Lets start there.
  3. oly65
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    oly65 - March 06, 2013 2:32 pm
    Do you know how much money the police and courts get from drunk drivers. If they stopped them at one or two a money source would be gone. Thats why people with 3,4,5 ,10 DWI's are still driving. There is no prevention methods its wait and we will get them again at a higher penalty.
  4. KCMAN
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    KCMAN - March 06, 2013 10:14 am
    I really do not care who proposes the legislation, something needs to be done and done as quickly as possible. I am tired of the news reports of people that have been arrested multiple times for OWI/DWI. We are all at risk from people who have proven multiples times that they do not deserve the privilege of driving. How much does the current ineffective system cost? Will some of that cost be replaced with an effective system? Our elected officials should be the brightest and the best of our society. Get it done folks and move onto the next problem!
  5. bluffsinview
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    bluffsinview - March 05, 2013 7:23 pm
    This seems to be ONLY thing Sen. Darling has done that isn't a result of her being paid off by some corporate or other special interest. She sure made out with the mining interests. But this is a good thing, so I have to give her credit when it's due. People being caught drunk driving after 5 or more other DWIs is ridiculous. Take away their cars, and if they borrow one, take that one, too.
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