Looking to curb drunk driving in Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker signed a law Monday that will make a person’s fourth drunk driving offense a felony regardless of when it was committed.
According to Wisconsin Department of Transportation, more than 24,000 people were convicted for drunk driving offenses in 2014. Alcohol-related crashes killed 162 people and injured around 2,700 in the same year.
David Noyce, University of Wisconsin professor of transportation engineering and Traffic Operations and Safety Laboratory director, said the law will make intoxicated people rethink driving in that state for fear of going to jail.
“The purpose of the law, in theory, is that the fear of a felony and jail time might make some rethink driving while intoxicated and set up designated drivers or use a taxi service,” Noyce said.
David Pabst, director of DOT Bureau of Transportation Safety, said Wisconsin is making progress combating drunk driving. He said alcohol-related crash fatalities have declined approximately 49 percent in the state, according to DOT data. But people still need to be more responsible behind the wheel because their decisions can injure or kill others, he said.
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Walker said in a statement more than 200 people are killed annually in Wisconsin because of repeat drunk drivers. The law will eliminate the review period following a drunk driver’s fourth offense. Currently, offenders can apply for an occupational license to drive in limited situations after this review period. But this law will prevent offenders from obtaining such licenses.
Wisconsin’s penalties for repeat drunk drivers are comparatively less severe than those in other states, Walker said. He said this law will change that.
“It is time to match the severity of our penalties to this crime, regardless of when it occurs,” Walker said.
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Pabst said DOT is currently allocating federal funding for 27 “multijurisdictional and high visibility” OWI task forces around Wisconsin. These task forces look to combine the resources and expertise of multiple law enforcement agencies to make roads safer for the public.
Pabst said it is important for people to take precautionary steps if they know they will be drinking. Choosing a sober designated driver and using taxis or alternative transportation is recommended. DOT’s “Zero in Wisconsin” app helps people take such steps, he said.
“Drunk driving is 100 percent preventable as it is a choice that is made by those drinking and driving,” Pabst said.
But Noyce said drunk driving is an issue that goes beyond the law’s control. Being arrested for a fourth or fifth OWI offense could be indicative of larger problems like alcoholism, which cannot be easily deterred through legal consequences.
Noyce said working to relieve the peer pressure and social norms associated with drinking alcohol in Wisconsin is key. He said it could help prevent people from having too many drinks and make better choices on the road.
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Providing resources and opportunities for people to use designated drivers and taxi services could also help curb drunk driving along with the law, Noyce said. He said the state also needs to look into providing alternatives for parts of the state, like rural areas, where taxis and cars may not be readily available. One alternative is autonomous vehicles, which the Traffic Operations and Safety Laboratory is currently working toward developing.
“Once we take the driver out of the transportation process, this issue and any other driver behavior issue is all but eliminated,” Noyce said.