Wisconsin Pushes to Toughen Penalties for Drunk Drivers

Car accident attorneys report that legislator’s in Wisconsin are attempting to crack down on drinking and driving. State residents are unsure the laws will make a difference, and are emphasizing the need for more enforcement instead of more laws.

Politicians in Madison, specifically State Representative Jim Ott (R) and Senator Alberta Darling (R), are trying to pass legislation that would criminalize first-offense DUIs, deem third offenses felonies, and institute mandatory minimum prison sentences for drunk drivers who cause crashes. According to USA TODAY, nearly 3,000 people were injured in alcohol-related accidents in 2011 in Wisconsin, and 225 people died. Nearly 40% of those convicted statewide for drunk driving were repeat offenders. In one Wisconsin county, more than 64% of DUI convictions were for repeat offenders.

Senator Darling says that Wisconsin has a troubling culture of accepting drunk driving, and that the first offense, which is not yet criminalized, is often equivalent to a speeding ticket. Darling and other advocates claim that tougher penalties are the only tool politicians have to crack down on drunk driving. Ott and Darling attempted to get similar legislation passed last year, however the efforts were derailed when a state analysis revealed that making third-offense DUIs a felony would add millions to already-strained court and corrections costs. Efforts to criminalize first offenses in 2002 didn’t even make it to draft legislation. The politicians are coming prepared this year, drafting six separate bills, each with unique DUI provisions, in order to improve the chance that at least a few will pass.

Wisconsin is uniquely influenced by alcohol lobbying groups such as the Tavern League of Wisconsin, which has more than 5,000 members and is planning on carefully reviewing the bills when they are made public. Wisconsin’s last significant DUI legislation changes took place in 2009, when fourth-offense DUIs were made felonies, though only if they occurred within five years of a previous drunk driving offense. Lobbyists for the Tavern League claim they supported this 2009 law change, and want to work with politicians to make positive difference in Wisconsin.

The state ranks second only behind Washington D.C. in alcohol consumption and binge drinking statistics. According to data from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, one in four Wisconsin adults binge drink (nationally, the number is one in six). Binge drinking is defined as consuming five or more drinks for men, and four or more drinks for women, in one sitting. Wisconsin was settled largely by Polish, Irish, and German immigrants, and Milwaukee was once the number one beer producing city in the world. Today, Wisconsinites fully embrace their boozy heritage, considering a drink or five at the end of the day a reward for their hard work. Others are more frank about the drinking culture, saying that during the long Midwestern winters, there really isn’t much else to do.

Senator Darling claims that residents of most other states are afraid of drinking and driving because of the negative stigma associated even with first offenses, a stigma that does not exist in Wisconsin. In many states, first offenders are required to install ignition interlock devices, perform community service hours, and pay hefty fines. Wisconsin has notoriously lax alcohol laws, among the most lenient in the nation as it is the only state that does not criminalize first offenses, does not permit DUI checkpoints, and allows anyone under 21 to drink in bars and restaurants with parental consent.

Madison legislators hope to dramatically change the lenient laws, drinking culture, and dangerous behaviors in Wisconsin. They will need the support of the Tavern League, however, if they hope to successfully pass tougher laws. The organization is extremely efficient, organized, well-connected, and powerful, and has tremendous lobbying influence.

Auto accident attorneys at Pintas & Mullins Law Firm hope Wisconsin residents support this long-overdue change in drunk driving laws. Accidents caused by drunk drivers can be devastating, and the alarmingly high rate of binge drinking and DUI repeat offenders must be curbed. If you or someone you love was seriously injured or killed in an accident caused by a drunk driver, you may be entitled to compensation, and should seek legal council to obtain maximum payment for your suffering.