In response to serious concerns about drunken driving in Wisconsin, state legislators are looking to increase penalties for the offense when they resume this January.
Wisconsin currently leads the nation in drunken driving fatalities, and the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel has been investigating the issue for the past several days.
Penalties could include jail time for all offenses and making a third drunk driving offense a felony, according to Mike Mikalsen, spokesperson for state Rep. Steve Nass, R-Whitewater.
“We have seen numerous cases of repeat drunk drivers,” Mikalsen said. “It is a very dangerous situation, and if we don’t do anything we’re going to see more and more tragedies, more innocent people get killed.”
Mikalsen argued the current drunken driving laws are not strict enough and are not respected by the public. He gave the example of a recent driver charged with his 12th drunken driving offense.
Rep. Kim Hixon, D-Whitewater, agreed that new laws are needed to gain the respect of drivers.
“We need to make laws so that people will think twice before they get behind the wheel after a few drinks,” Hixon said.
While some in the Legislature are pushing to make the first time offense a criminal act, the focus of the legislation will be penalties for repeat drunken drivers.
State Rep. Scott Suder, R-Abbotsford, does not believe the push for harsher penalties for first- and second-time offenders will pass but supports the legislation for third offenses and above.
“We have all seen a lot of stories about individuals who are repeat offenders, and there is a public outcry to do something,” Suder said. “But we don’t want to go too far either.”
Nass also fears going too far, according to Mikalsen. He believes the use of sobriety check points will inconvenience sober drivers too much. Nass does support an increase of patrol cars to put more officers in the areas where there is a high level of drunken driving.
Rep. Glenn Grothman, R-West Bend, thinks the probable results of the legislation will include an increased use of breathalyzers and an increase in mandatory jail or prison time for repeat offenders.
More than the legal implications, Mikalsen emphasized the need to change society to decrease drunken driving.
He thinks it is the responsibility of the family and friends of a potential drunken driver to stop them from getting behind the wheel of a car. If necessary, the family and friends need to call the police to report the driver.
“Laws alone aren’t going to change this,” Mikalsen said. “Repeat drunk driving cannot be tolerated anymore.”
The Legislature will look to make a permanent change when they come back in session in January. Since the issue has broad bipartisan support, a change will likely be made in January, February or March, according to Mikalsen.
“We need to make our roads safer,” Hixon said. “We need to get drunk drivers off the road.”