In a state known for its drinking culture, public health officials and interest groups are bringing drunken driving enforcement policy into focus.
Wisconsin is the only state in the nation where drunken driving is not criminalized for first time offenders and instead results in a traffic ticket. Both candidates running for Attorney General, Susan Happ, a rural district attorney, and Waukesha County District Attorney Brad Schimel have publicly denounced changing that policy.
Mothers Against Drunk Driving’s Chief Governor Affairs Officer J.T. Griffin said the decision to maintain current policy is a disservice to public safety.
“It’s just a shame that Wisconsin is not doing a better job and is not taking this issue seriously,” Griffin said. “Drunk driving is a public health issue and it doesn’t just affect the drunk driver, it affects everyone’s family, and we know at MADD how to stop drunk driving.”
Wisconsin Alcohol Policy Project Coordinator Julia Sherman, however, said drunken driving is just one element of Wisconsin’s drinking culture and that criminalizing drunk driving would not necessarily make a great difference.
Although increasing penalties is often the focus for reducing poor behavior like drunken driving, many elements must come together to motivate people to change their habits, Sherman said.
“We could make failing to mow your lawn a capital offense … but nobody would every really expect it to affect their life,” Sherman said. “So it probably wouldn’t affect lawn mowing behavior a great deal.”
Keeping this in mind, Sherman said, some advocates against drunken driving are instead calling for sobriety checkpoints, which has reduced impaired driving in several states including Montana, Virginia and Delaware.
She said, however, that is only one step, and to reduce driving under the influence, several steps are needed.
“If it were to be criminalized it would need to be part of a larger passage that would help improve the alcohol environment and also make it meaningful,” Sherman said. “Either increase saturation patrol or sobriety checkpoints, increase money for law enforcement and increase alcohol age compliance checks.”
According to Griffin, however, the cost to taxpayers alone should motivate people to advocate for criminalizing drunken driving.
Research conducted by MADD from the Wisconsin Department of Transportation data found that Wisconsin taxpayers currently pay an estimated $1 billion subsidizing drunken driving.
“We pay things like auto insurance premiums, we pay higher health insurance, we have to pay first responders to go and treat these people after they’ve been in crashes, we have to pay law enforcement to get them off the street,” Griffin said. “These are all things that as tax payers we’re paying for, and I think that they would be doubly upset about it. Not just that someone’s child could be hit and killed … but the fact that we’re paying more than our fair share.”
Sherman said although tax payers pay a lot because of drunken driving now, there is a cost to taxpayers in changing the policy as well.
Research conducted into a bill that aimed to criminalize first time offenders found that there would be an increase in public defender’s and district attorney’s costs to defend first-time offenders in court.
“There’s a cost to not changing and there’s a cost to changing, but people tend to fear they’re living with already less,” Sherman said.