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Does Wisconsin Like To Be Seen As Soft On Drunk Drivers?

June 19, 2009


It is late Friday afternoon, and the warm summer weekend is about to start in Wisconsin.  For many, so will the drinking.   It has long been a stain on Wisconsin that the less than sober-minded Tavern League has had a head-lock on a large segment of the State Legislature.  The elected officials, though they will not admit it, are often controlled by the Tavern League when it comes to drunk driving legislation.  One only need to look at the absence of real meaningful reforms in state statutes concerning drunk drivers, to know this is a very real fact.

Today the the Wall Street Journal had a large article on this matter.  I post parts here with some more of my thoughts at the end.

Lawmakers are seeking to tighten drunken-driving laws in a state that’s among the most lenient on people driving under the influence.

Long known for its breweries, Wisconsin is the only state that penalizes a first-time drunken-driving offense with a traffic citation, rather than a criminal charge. It is among about a dozen states that prohibit sobriety checkpoints by police.

Legislators have now decided to crack down in the wake of several high-profile crash deaths, and intense local media coverage of the state’s high incidence of drunken-driving deaths. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel recently ran a series called “Wasted in Wisconsin.”

But parents of crash victims and some lawmakers say most of the proposals don’t go far enough. They allege the legislature is unwilling to upset the state’s powerful bar and restaurant industry.

State Democratic Rep. Tony Staskunas has advanced a bill that would require first offenders with blood-alcohol content of at least 0.15% — nearly twice the legal limit of 0.08% — to install “ignition interlocks” on their cars. These devices, when a driver breathes into them, can detect alcohol levels and block a vehicle from starting.

The bill also would bolster penalties for repeat offenders, and expand an alcohol-treatment program that serves as an alternative to jail time.

Mr. Staskunas’s bill was unanimously approved Wednesday in a public-safety committee that he chairs. It has the backing of the state Assembly leadership, and could be voted on as early as this month. A similar bill in the Senate has the support of the Senate majority leader.

Mr. Staskunas said the legislature has done little to toughen drunken-driving laws in his dozen years in office. Now, he said, “I feel very confident that the legislature is going to pass some significant drunk-driving reforms, and that [Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle] is going to sign those.”

Mothers Against Drunk Driving supports Mr. Staskunas’s bill, but Chuck Hurley, the group’s chief executive, said that “only in Wisconsin” did such legislation signify progress.

Others, including families of victims of drunken drivers, say they are upset the Assembly and Senate bills most likely to pass fail to make a first offense a crime, and don’t end the state’s ban on sobriety checkpoints.

“These bills are not substantive,” said Judy Jenkins. Last year, Ms. Jenkins’s pregnant 39-year-old daughter, Jennifer Bukosky, was killed when her car was struck by a driver who days earlier was convicted of his third drunken-driving offense. Also killed was Ms. Bukosky’s 10-year-old daughter, Courtney Bella.

Such laws are emblematic of a culture that has long embraced alcohol. Many of Wisconsin’s settlers were German immigrants, who brought a love of beer and spawned such famous beer companies as Miller Brewing Co. The Wisconsin Tavern League, which represents more than 5,000 drinking establishments, is a major force in state politics.

Legislators mostly are pursuing “the low-hanging fruit,” Mr. Jenkins said, noting that most proposals address repeat offenders. The majority of impaired-driving deaths in Wisconsin, as well as across the U.S., involve someone with no prior drunken-driving record.

State Democratic Sen. Jim Sullivan, co-sponsor of the Senate bill that is similar to Mr. Staskunas’s, said “there is not support for criminalizing a first offense in this building.” He and Mr. Staskunas also said Wisconsin couldn’t afford the millions of dollars it would cost to expand its court-system infrastructure and staffs to handle more criminal cases.

If it is true what Senator Sullivan says, and the courts would find lots of cases as the result of new laws that tighten up drunk driving, then does that not in-and-of itself suggest something needs to be done.  In a round about way he admits there is a problem.  By looking the other way and not addressing it will not make it better.  I am not blasting Sullivan here, but instead the sick culture in the State Legislature that allows this group think to prevail.

One part of what State Senator Sullivan says needs to be underscored.  There are not enough independent minded legislators in Wisconsin that will look at the facts and propose or support bills dealing with drunk drivers.  Instead these legislators allow themselves to be brow-beaten and threatened with political opposition at election time, or told they will be denied campaign cash.  Like wilting flowers in the afternoon sun these timid elected officials seek the safe route, but not the high road when it comes to cracking down on drunk drivers.


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