Wisconsin once again recorded the highest rate of drinking and driving in the nation.
Using data from 2006 to 2009, it is estimated 23.7 percent of Wisconsin drivers drove under the influence at least once in the past year, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health.
Wisconsin’s rate of drinking and driving is 10 percent higher than national averages and 16 percent higher than Utah, which boasted the lowest drinking and driving rate in the nation, according to the report.
This is the second report in two years where Wisconsin has shown the worst rates of drinking and driving, and similar results extend back at least a decade, according to Nina Emerson, director of University Wisconsin’s Resource Center on Impaired Driving.
The report is a self-reported survey, meaning participants voluntarily admit to driving while under the influence of alcohol or other drugs.
Some attribute Wisconsin’s consistent high drunken driving rate to Wisconsinites being more honest than the rest of the nation’s population, Emerson said.
“But every state’s population self reports it. Maybe for some reason people wouldn’t want to out themselves, but if it’s anonymous they should feel more comfortable admitting it,” Emerson said.
Wisconsin’s high rates of drunken driving is often attributed to a culture that readily accepts binge drinking.
“The state, generally speaking, likes to drink,” Emerson said, citing a federal study that reported Wisconsin had the nation’s highest prevalence of binge drinking.
A first offense Operating While Intoxicated in Wisconsin is just a ticket and fine, while other states treat the first offense more seriously, recording it as a misdemeanor.
States use results from the report to determine whether legislative changes are needed. Wisconsin passed a new package of regulations in July that aimed to address Wisconsin’s drinking and driving problem.
The new law made a first offense OWI a misdemeanor if a child under the age of 16 is in the vehicle, and made 4th offense OWI a felony when committed within five years of a prior offense.
Wisconsin also enacted legislation in 1993 requiring drivers convicted of second offense OWI, or first offense with a blood alcohol level above .15, to install an ignition interlock device.
Drivers blow into a Breathalyzer inside their car, and if a BAC above .02 is detected the car will not start, Emerson said.
Although Wisconsin has passed legislation aimed at curbing drinking and driving, experts say the Legislature does not address the state’s drinking culture.
“The Legislature is only looking at the driving part of the equation,” Emerson said. “As long as you only look at that part, you’ll have limited results.”
Emerson said the state should look into increasing the beer tax, which has not been touched or adjusted for inflation since its inception in 1969.
Increasing the cost and reducing the availability of alcohol is the right way to begin making inroads into Wisconsin’s entrenched drinking behavior, Emerson said.
“People that grow up here and stay here – the drinking culture seems normal. But if you go anywhere else, you realize it’s not normal,” Emerson said.