Sobering realities are on the horizon for people willing to drink and drive as the Wisconsin Senate passed three bills this month which aim to crack down on drunk drivers.
These new bills provide a proactive approach to decreasing the number of drunk driving incidents in Wisconsin. Right now, the state’s level of incidence ranks 29th in the U.S. for operating while intoxicated deaths, an impressive status given Wisconsin’s casual laws.
The present system of handling OWI offenders in Wisconsin has problematic elements to it. In a nutshell, OWI arrests are treated way too nonchalantly.
Currently, Wisconsin is the only state that considers a first-offense drunk driving arrest as a simple civil violation. This allows the offender to opt out of appearing in court in exchange for paying a fine — a nonsensical concept when OWIs are so dangerous. The easy treatment given to offenders has produced ethically questionable circumstances.
This past August, a drunk driver landed a woman from Kenosha in the hospital with a coma and serious injuries. The driver had a 0.11 blood-alcohol concentration (BAC), but since the crash constituted his first offence, he spent little time in custody, was released quickly to his mother and kept his privilege to drive.
See the problem? The current penalties for drunk driving aren’t nearly stringent enough to deter drivers from breaking the law.
Imagine the state directed a night in jail and fine as punishment for homicide charges — that’s crazy. Yet that’s basically the deal we have now with drunk driving. This is why these new bills are so important for Wisconsin. They add strength to the relatively weak penalties currently in place.
The first bill, Assembly Bill 15, mandates OWI offenders appear in court, taking away the privilege to opt out if they want to. This puts a fail-safe on the charge, because if the person fails to show up, they’ll automatically be convicted for the applicable penalties, along with a $300 fine for disobeying the court.
The second bill, AB 16 corresponds to Assembly Bills in the past. It elongates the amount of time fifth and sixth offenders have to spend in jail after an arrest. The time changed from 6 months to 18. This new mandatory minimum provides heavier penalties to drivers who drive drunk.
The third bill, AB 17, mandates a five year prison sentence for homicidal OWI crashes. This is extremely important, since OWI crash fatalities are just as significant as homicides not related to intoxication.
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According to Rep. Jim Ott, R-Mequon, who authored the bills, all of this work to crack down on drunk driving aims to create leverage in the government with OWIs where there isn’t any.
“The punishment should meet the severity of the crime,” Ott said, in an interview with Wisconsin Public Radio.
These bills will greatly aid efforts currently being discussed by policymakers. Instituting constant street patrolling, sobriety checkpoints and ignition locks in vehicles have all been pursued as options to decrease drunk driving incidents. While everything but the checkpoints have yielded unfavorable results, the introduction of stronger governmental penalties might boost their usefulness.
With stronger incentives to not drink and drive, people will start refraining from doing so more often. This concept appears to be true from results of placing regular sobriety checks on streets, a tactic which provides potential drunk drivers with the constant threat they’ll be arrested.
In all, Wisconsin is already on its way to decreasing OWI tragedies. Even with the current laws in place, Wisconsin’s OWI fatality count decreased by around 40% from 2007 to 2016, making it the eighth largest decrease in the country. Now with the new bills in place, those statistics should only get better.
Katie Hardie ([email protected]) is a freshman studying nursing.