Wisconsin is not just known for making world class dairy products or for being the home of the historic Green Bay Packers. Unfortunately, we are known for something else: our pervasive drinking culture. Drinking in and of itself is not a bad thing. Yet, when our state laws permit people’s alcoholic drinking to negatively affect other people, we have a serious problem. The recent legislative proposals from two Republican state legislators are a step in the right direction toward fixing our antiquated drinking laws. Even so, I don’t think they go far enough.
It cannot seriously be disputed that, at least compared to other states, Wisconsin has a drinking problem. According to the Capital Times, Wisconsin has the top binge drinking rate in the country at 21.8 percent. Wisconsin also has the nation’s top rate for self-reported drunk driving. This was demonstrated by a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services survey conducted in 2009, where 26 percent of Wisconsin respondents admitted to driving while drunk in the past year. In addition, 300,000 Wisconsin drivers have at least one operating while intoxicated charge. Although this is no laughing matter, even some comedians have made jokes about Wisconsin’s drinking problems. In 2008 Lewis Black performed in Wisconsin and said, “You are not alcoholics. You—and my hat is off to you—you are professionals.”
Although Wisconsin’s deeply-entrenched drinking culture is one of the main contributors to our high rates of binge drinking and drunk driving, it certainly isn’t the only reason. Another factor is the influence and lobbying of the Tavern League of Wisconsin. In many states, the most influential special interest groups are either teachers’ unions or the state’s chamber of commerce. In contrast, the most influential special interest group in Wisconsin is arguably the Tavern League. As Scott Stenger, a Tavern League lobbyist, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in 2008, “If you want to start to list groups that legislators don’t want to get in a fight with, or are afraid of, I think our group is on the list.” This would explain why Wisconsin did not raise its per-barrel tax rate on beer between 1969 and 2008, making it the third lowest in the U.S. It would also explain why the Wisconsin blood alcohol concentration limit while driving was not lowered to .08, which most states had already done, until the federal government threatened to withdraw Wisconsin’s federal highway funds.
Wisconsin is the only state where a first-time OWI is not a criminal offense but instead is only a traffic citation. The only time a person can be charged with a criminal offense for a first-time OWI is when there is a child in the vehicle. The legislative proposal by Rep. Jim Ott, R-Mequon, and Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, would make a first-time OWI a misdemeanor if the person has a BAC of .15 or above. The proposal would also make third-time OWIs a felony. The Tavern League has opposed efforts to criminalize first-time OWIs in the past and has also opposed sobriety checkpoints. Given the political clout of the Tavern League, this legislative proposal faces an uphill battle.
I don’t consider myself a person who usually adheres to a “get tough on crimes” approach to solving criminal and social issues. Yet, in this instance, I think we must absolutely get tougher on drunk driving by implementing stricter OWI laws and more penalties for those who violate these laws. The Legislature should make all first-time OWI offenses a misdemeanor, as long as the offender has a BAC of .08. There is no reason for only making it a criminal offense when the offender has a BAC of .15.
When a person drives under the influence, that person puts other people’s lives at serious risk. According to the Wisconsin Reporter, Wisconsin had 6,429 alcohol-related vehicle accidents in 2009. These accidents led to 3,793 injuries and 238 deaths. It makes no sense to allow someone to put people’s lives at risk by driving drunk and then only give them a traffic citation. How can a person be charged with a misdemeanor for smoking marijuana in his own home and, at the same time, others can drive drunk and go home with only a traffic citation? This makes absolutely no sense and cannot be supported by basic logic.
Wisconsin certainly has a drinking problem. We have the worst binge drinking and drunk driving rates in the country. We need to get serious about punishing and deterring those who choose to put other people’s lives at risk by driving drunk. The legislative proposal by Ott and Darling is a positive step in the right direction. I urge the Legislature to protect Wisconsin residents by enacting this much-needed proposal.
Aaron Loudenslager (email@example.com) is a first-year law student.