Between car crashes, property damage, health care and corrections, drunk driving costs the state hundreds of millions of dollars.

Alcohol-related crashes cost Wisconsin more than $450 million in 2012, according to Department of Transportation’s estimates. This cost includes money from fatalities, injuries, possible injuries and property damages resulting from drunk driving. Of the injuries resulting in hospitalizations, hospital charges accounted for $11 million. This does not include the cost for medical care that occurred after the patient left the hospital.  

Alcohol was a contributing factor in 223 traffic fatalities in Wisconsin in 2012, which represents 37 percent of all traffic deaths, according to DOT numbers.  

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Richard Brown, University of Wisconsin family medicine professor, said one of the major problems in Wisconsin is that the first drunk driving offense is not considered a felony. He said Wisconsin needs to have more stringent drunk driving laws because Wisconsin has a “drunk driving problem.”

But measures to combat drunk driving are costly.

One bill that would make the fourth OWI offense a felony has an estimated cost impact of $97.9 million to $129 million on the Department of Corrections because of the potential for increased incarceration rates, according to the bill’s fiscal estimate.

John Lee, UW industrial and systems engineering professor and expert in driver distraction, said even though drunk driving incurs high costs to the state, it doesn’t compare to the cost of life.

“I think when you try to assess monetary cost with something like drunk driving, or anything that kills people, it’s very difficult to put a dollar value on someone’s grandma or daughter,” Lee said. “It’s not just the people who die, it’s the people whose lives are changed forever because of the crash.”

Ignition interlocking devices: A solution or a problem?

One of the measures to prevent drunk driving is the requirement for ignition interlocking devices.

Officer Deanna Reilly, Madison Police Department traffic specialist, said these devices require drivers to take a breathalyzer test before they are able to start their car. Drivers are required to install them if they are driving with a BAC above 0.15 on their first OWI offense. The current legal BAC limit for driving is 0.08.

From 2012-15, there were 37,844 court orders for ignition interlocking devices, and 23,850 proof of installations received by the DMV, according to numbers provided by Mark Dickinson, DOT supervisor. This seems to indicate 37 percent of people who are required to install ignition interlocking devices are ignoring that order, but Dickinson said that is not the case.

While some may still be driving illegally without interlocking devices, Dickinson said some people may choose to not drive at all, or wait until subsequent years when they have the opportunity to install the device.

“There really isn’t solid evidence to support that [people are refusing to install],” Dickinson said. “We don’t know what’s going on with some of these people.”

If someone is ordered to install an ignition interlocking device, they aren’t able to get another license until the device is installed for the required period of time, Dickinson said.

Reilly said ignition interlocking devices help to deter drunk driving, but only for those who choose to install them.

Legislative action

Lawmakers have also taken multiple steps to combat the issue of drunk driving. One of the most significant changes is a bill that would make the fourth OWI offense a felony and increase penalties for fifth and sixth offenses.

Under current law, the fourth OWI offense is only a felony if it occurs within five years of the last drunk driving offense. The goal of this legislation is to crack down on repeat drunk drivers.

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Gov. Scott Walker said in an interview with WKOW in February the Department of Corrections should explore alternative options to incarceration for these repeat drunk driving offenders. He said this would save corrections costs since habitual drunk drivers are only dangerous when they are on the road.

The bill passed through the Senate unopposed Jan. 20, through the Assembly on a 95-1 vote Feb. 16 and now heads to Walker’s desk for his signature.

Another bill, which was signed into law Feb. 29, allows police officers to obtain search warrants to administer BAC blood tests on the first OWI offense. Before this law, offenders could refuse to have their BAC level tested.

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Another legislative effort aims to crack down on hit and runs, which are many times caused by drunk driving, according to a statement. The bill now heads to the Senate.

Brown said these legislative actions help, but only if drivers think there is a chance that they will actually get pulled over.

Other possible solutions

Brown said more needs to be done to combat the issue of drunk driving. He said the state should let local governments establish sobriety checkpoints so law enforcement can stop people to ensure they’re sober.

Sobriety checkpoints are conducted in 38 states and the District of Columbia, according to the Governors Highway Association website. Brown said Wisconsin is in the minority, and that needs to change.

Another action to be taken, Brown said, would be to raise alcohol taxes. He said research shows if alcohol were more expensive, young people would buy less of it and engage in drunk driving less often. Wisconsin is first in the nation for binge drinking rates, he added.

But Reilly said increasing penalties isn’t always a good solution because it doesn’t solve the underlying problem. She said treatment options need to be available so people change their behaviors.

Technology advances could also help to curb the effects of drunk driving, Reilly said. There are steering wheels that can detect alcohol in the skin and eye monitoring systems that alert the driver when they are drowsy or impaired. She said technology is working to make roads safer, but the cost of these devices is often a barrier to their implementation.

Despite these possible solutions, Reilly said change is usually unlikely to occur unless someone has a specific experience with drunk driving that negatively affects them.

“It tends to be a ripple effect. If it affects you personally, you tell five people who love you and they tell five people and it’s that specific deterrent that’s usually the catapult for us to make changes,” Reilly said. “Which isn’t a good answer, but that seems to be what it takes.”