Wisconsin Man Gets 5th OWI While Suspended. No Interlock?

ignition interlocks needed in wisconsinWisconsin again – a state that has one of the most stubborn drunk driving problems, and a curious lack of will to address it. A recent arrest highlights the ease with which offenders skate through a series of OWIs with few repercussions.

Recently a man from Delavan was charged with his fifth OWI. At the time his driver’s license was revoked. Moreover, he was supposed to have an ignition interlock installed in his vehicle. An ignition interlock, or car breathalyzer, prevents a vehicle from starting if the driver has been drinking.

A fifth OWI in Wisconsin is now a felony, thanks to a law passed last year. As a result, the offender, Neal B. Ottow, faces fines of up to $10,000 and a year in prison if convicted.

But what’s important here is that this last arrest need not have happened. Ottow was supposed to have an ignition interlock installed last April. Had the device been in his car, he wouldn’t have been able to start it after drinking. That is the purpose of the interlock, after all.

Then why wasn’t the device installed? Unfortunately, like a number of states, Wisconsin has the habit of ordering ignition interlocks but not following through on making sure that they are installed.

Ignition Interlocks: Safety Technology Works if You Work It

Ignition interlocks are designed to keep roads safer by taking drunk drivers directly off the roads. They don’t punish drunk drivers – their purpose is purely preventive. And they have been proven to reduce alcohol-related road deaths.

However, in order to work, the devices must be installed. That part of the process is often the most fragile in a state’s system. A judge or DMV gives the order for an interlock to be installed, and the license is suspended, and no further checking is done. Often when the interlock period is over the offender can reapply for a license, having never gotten an interlock.

In a properly administered ignition interlock program, an offender can never “wait out” the interlock period. Washington State is an example: you can only get your license back after you have had the ignition interlock installed, used, and removed after the proper amount of time. Moreover, you have to go a certain amount of time without a failed test in order to have the device removed. This is called compliance-based removal, and it helps weed out hard-core repeat drunk drivers.

The best system uses sobriety courts, in which a court-appointed supervisor oversees the probation of the offender, ensures that the offender goes to counseling sessions, and also keeps track of the test data from the ignition interlock. Sobriety courts have very high compliance rates, and are successful in curbing recidivism.

Time For Wisconsin to Step Up

The first step for Wisconsin is for legislators to understand that the problem is not going to get better without action, and that a solution already exists – ignition interlocks – that has been proven successful in other states. The next step is to beef up ignition interlock compliance to get some of those repeat OWI offenders off Wisconsin’s highways.