Wisconsin Drunk Driving Laws meet Resistance

March 12, 2013

283836_wisconsin_state_capitol.jpgCar accident lawyers at Pintas & Mullins recently reported on six bills introduced into Wisconsin legislation aimed at finally cracking down on the state's notoriously lax drunk driving laws. The set of bills are getting mixed responses, however, as both parties hesitate to pass the laws.

Wisconsin is the only state in the nation where first-offense DUI is not criminalized, DUI checkpoints are not permitted, and anyone under 21 is allowed to drink in bars and restaurants if their parents consent. The state's largely-accepted drinking culture renders drunk driving convictions almost meaningless, as almost no negative social stigma is attached to them anymore.

The bills would increase penalties for repeated drunk drivers and first-offenders with high BAC levels, and render third offenses felonies. One bill would establish a mandatory prison sentence for drunk drivers who injure or kill someone, and another would cause drivers with three or more offenses to have their vehicles seized.

The bills' lead sponsor, Senator Alberta Darling, said the laws are intended to spark a discussion about how much tolerance Wisconsinites have for driving under the influence. A similar set of bills failed to pass when it was estimated their implementation would require tens of millions of dollars.

Cost is undoubtedly one of the major reason these bills may fail a second time. Some are arguing that making first-offenses a crime would sharply increase the workloads for prosecutors, clerks, judges and defenders, forcing counties to hire more attorneys. Others are worried that increased DUI enforcement will mean less time for other cases, such as those involving drug trafficking and domestic abuse.

The director of the University of Wisconsin-Madison Resource Center on Impaired Driving stated that measures such as DUI checkpoints would do more to curtail drunk driving than increased penalties. She said that people need to have a firm belief that they will be apprehended if they drive drunk, which they do not currently have in Wisconsin. Others are suggesting legislators implement ignition interlock devices instead, which prevent people from driving if they have a BAC of .03 or higher. Offenders have to blow into the devices before each time they start their car.

This method has been adapted by several states in the past few years, and may be part of the answer for Wisconsin. Interlocks may have stopped a 44-year-old man in La Crosse who was recently charged with his ninth DUI. The man nearly ran over a police officer, and fought and spit on police during his arrest, even banging his own head against the ground and hood of the police car. The man was convicted of eight drunk driving offences between 1993 and 2010, and has more than 20 criminal convictions.

In 2011, nearly 3,000 people were injured in alcohol-related accidents in Wisconsin and 225 people were killed. Nearly 40% of those convicted for drinking and driving were repeat offenders. According to the CDC, one in four Wisconsin adults binge drink - nationally, the number is one in six. Binge drinking is defined as having five or more drinks in one sitting for men, and four for women.

According to data by the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, Wisconsin has the highest number of drunken driving deaths in the nation. Clearly, something has to be done about these numbers. Agencies like the All-Wisconsin Alcohol Risk Education recently initiated a campaign that pushes for increased alcohol abuse screening at health clinics and greater awareness of drinking problems throughout the state. With 5,000 holders of liquor licenses, Wisconsin has the most per capita of any other state in the nation.

Car accident lawyers at Pintas & Mullins hope that at least a few of the six bills are passed, and Wisconsin residents embrace this long-overdue change in drunk driving laws. If you or someone you love was seriously injured by a drunk driver, you have important legal rights, and may be entitled to compensation for medical bills, pain and suffering, and lost wages.