The death of Chicago television news reporter Randy Salerno by a drunken snowmobile driver was the type of high profile causality that has pushed this sad issue up for public notice. Again. The problem of too much alcohol, lax law enforcement measures on the trails, and machines that are designed to go far too fast all contribute to high rates of snowmobiling deaths in Wisconsin each year. In a little more than 2 years 77 people have died in Wisconsin as a result of these issues. Forty-five of them involved alcohol.
Nearly 20 years ago I sat alongside Democratic Assembly Tourism Chairperson Lary Swoboda as his Research Clerk, in an effort for our committee to explore ways to make the winter activity safer. I seriously believe that Swoboda wanted to improve the safety concerns that were prevalent at that time. Since Wisconsin was the destination of so many who enjoyed the outdoor activity there was discussion of even trying to limit the manufacturers from making machines that were too fast for the conditions of the average trail. And of course there was the debate about how to limit drinking and driving on the trails. In the end the same powerful forces as always made sure that no serious legislation ever emerged from our committee. The Wisconsin Tavern League has always been front and center in stopping needed legislation.
Thankfully the Chicago media has not allowed the death of the CBS Channel 2 reporter to be his final ending, as fellow reporter Dave Savini makes most clear in a story reported from Wausau. Savini traveled to northern Wisconsin and went undercover to see exactly how the mixing of alcohol and fast snowmobiles have created a huge upswing in deaths on the trails.
His story is a must read, and one that I hope helps shame Wisconsin into taking action.
There is also a news video that is shocking for its honesty. You will see bartenders act in ways that no one can defend. (Well almost no one, except the Wisconsin Tavern League probably will.)
Thrilling rides across frozen lakes, and winding trails; powerful snow mobiles reaching speeds up to 120 miles an hour; and if that’s not enough, just follow the signs and bright lights to a night life centered around luring riders and their wallets a few feet away from the trails, and into a world of drinking games and half-price specials.The trails are loaded with bars where the drinks are flowing and there’s little regard for safety. In fact, when the 2 Investigators rented our snowmobiles we were given a map showing us the way to every saloon, pub and tavern along the most fatal trails in Wisconsin.We even saw bartenders join in the festivities. At 2:30 in the morning it’s closing time, the bar is cleared and the snowmobile operators rev up their sleds for one more ride.”A lot of these guys go bar to bar to bar,” said Warden Mike Sealander.Wardens who patrol the trails from the state Department of Natural Resources say it is this kind of behavior that scares them the most. “They’re obviously getting over served, I mean when you’re arresting people and their getting killed with three times, four times the alcohol limit that they are supposed to have somebody, some place is giving them to much,” Sealander said.
Authorities say some taverns even use police scanners to warn patrons when there is a special unit in the area.This weekend the 2 Investigators went undercover into a dozen bars spanning towns like Tomahawk, Minocqua and St. Germain. They are located in Wisconsin’s two deadliest counties for snowmobiling accidents.We found a man who says he’s driven drunk on a snowmobile a thousand times.“If they can’t catch, what the hells the difference,” he said.
He explains how in Wisconsin drunken snow mobile drivers only get a fine, “and it don’t go against your license.”
Attempts at changing the law to suspend or revoke the motor vehicle licenses of drunken snowmobile operators have been unsuccessful. Critics argue the Tavern League, a lobbying organization for the bar industry, is holding up the much-needed changes.
One of the areas that must be addressed is the dram laws in Wisconsin. Taverns that over serve customers, who then cause accidents, need to be held accountable for their actions. Taverns need to be held liable for the way they operate. Anything less than that is gross and unconscionable behavior on the part of the Wisconsin Legislature. Sadly these elected officials are still beholden for campaign cash that the Tavern League doles out. This is also just one more example of why needed campaign finance reform is required in Wisconsin. Good and reasonable legislation often dies when money flows in the Statehouse.
There is clearly something very wrong in the northwoods of our state. The question is who has the political guts to make the changes that are required.