First-offense drunken driving would be a criminal offense in Wisconsin under a proposal in the Legislature to criminalize first-offense charges for operating a vehicle while intoxicated.
Attorney general candidate Rep. Jon Richards, D-Milwaukee, introduced a bill Monday to make the first OWI offense a misdemeanor with a penalty of up to $300 and five days in jail.
“First offenders are no less dangerous than repeat offenders,” Richards said in a statement. “In fact, a majority of drunken driving injuries and deaths involve drivers who had no previous convictions.”
A similar attempt at reforming drunk driving laws came in a series of six related bills that were introduced last March by Rep. Jim Ott, R-Mequon, and Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, one of which would criminalize first offense drunk driving if the driver had a blood alcohol concentration of 0.15 or more.
The legislation would also establish mandatory minimum sentences for drivers who cause bodily harm or commit homicide when driving while intoxicated and allow for the confiscation of a driver’s vehicle after their third drunk driving offense.
“Making first offense a crime is one of many laws we should pass this session if we truly want to get serious about drunken driving in Wisconsin,” Richards said.
The most recent proposal comes after a recent report by Mothers Against Drunk Driving highlighted the need to crack down on drunken driving in the state.
Wisconsin is the only state in the country that does not treat first-time OWIs as criminal offenses, according to the organization. Instead, traffic tickets are issued and licenses can be suspended.
According to data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 33 percent of driving fatalities in Wisconsin during 2012 involved alcohol.
“The report is a blueprint for the elimination of drunk driving,” MADD National President Jan Withers said in a statement. “Families in Wisconsin deserve to be protected from drunk drivers, and MADD calls on the Legislature to take action to stop drunk driving.”
In addition to criminalizing first offenses, Richards is working in the Legislature to require ignition interlocks for all individuals convicted of drunken driving.
When installed in a vehicle, ignition interlocks use a breathalyzer device to measure the driver’s blood alcohol level and prevent the car from starting if it is above the legal limit.
Withers has also suggested requiring interlocks for convicted drunk drivers in the state.
“Reducing drunk driving in Wisconsin begins with requiring interlocks for all convicted drunk drivers, starting with the first offense,” she said.
According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Republican attorney general candidate Brad Schimel said last month the criminalization of first-offense drunken driving could lead to unintended consequences, including more fatalities.
Schimel reportedly said proponents of criminalization need to prove such reforms would actually make Wisconsin safer.
“It’s not my job as a district attorney to do that research,” Schimel said in the article.
[Photo from Flickr user Daquella manera]