Upshot of Wisconsin Legislative Session: Sensible OWI Laws Dead in the Water

If you judge people’s intentions by their actions, then it would seem that some Wisconsin state legislators intend to keep drunk drivers on the road.

Free-Pass-DUIThis year the legislature had the chance to bring Wisconsin OWI laws in line with the rest of the universe. Instead, they chose to pass almost none of the legislation, leaving drivers and pedestrians under the flimsy protection of the current, infamously lenient laws.

An example: in many states, those who have been convicted of drunk driving face mandatory imprisonment and fines. About half the states in the country also require an ignition interlock, which prevents a vehicle from starting if the driver has  been drinking. Some states have instituted mandatory jail time for a first offense. In Wisconsin, on the other hand, a first OWI offender with a BAC under .15 doesn’t even have to appear in court.

So, what’s wrong? Why can’t Wisconsin get its OWI act together? It’s not simply a matter of lack of will. Many legislators, particularly in the Senate, support stronger OWI laws. But a number of factors conspired to defeat the bills.

Reason 1: Overload

A lot of OWI bills were introduced this session. Taken one at a time, each seemed like a no-brainer, and they had broad support. Some of them involved:

  • Increased penalties for repeat OWI offenders
  • Confiscation of vehicles for third of subsequent OWIs
  • Barring drivers who are required to have ignition interlocks on their own vehicles from driving other cars
  • Increased penalties for drivers causing death or injury while intoxicated

The problem is that bills have to be studied carefully before they’re voted on. Had there been one or two bills, legislators might have been able to consider them properly. But there were too many of them, and caucuses tend not to support bills when they don’t have time for due diligence.

Reason 2: Money

Truth be told, some of the bills being introduced would have cost a lot. Passing so many bills would have had a high fiscal impact on the state. Which is not to say that the expenditure isn’t worthwhile, but once again, had there been one or two bills, things might have worked out differently.

Reason 3: Wisconsin

Wisconsin’s drinking culture is well known. The state leads the country in binge drinking; minors are legally allowed to drink if accompanied by parents. The Tavern League is a powerful influence on legislature, and they frankly discourage laws that would have drinkers thinking twice about ordering another round.

This mentality leads to a fair amount of sympathy for drunk drivers, since everyone seems to know someone with an OWI under their belt. There is a pervasive sense that first-time offenders should be coddled, that people are entitled to one mistake. Never mind that statistics show that a first-time offender has usually driven impaired about 80 times before his or her arrest.

Wait Till Next Year

There is some good news. Legislators are working with MADD, DOT, law enforcement organizations and other groups on a bill which will encourage the state to offer incentives for OWI offenders to install ignition interlocks. Those who get the interlock will not have route or time restrictions on their driving (which are counterproductive anyway).  There will be incentives for first-time OWI offenders as well. Since ignition interlocks are proven to reduce recidivism and prevent alcohol-related road deaths, they are an essential part of any anti drunk-driving strategy.

This new bill should come up in the next legislative session, which begins in January. So perhaps, with one clearly-focused bill, Wisconsin will finally have a sensible way of dealing with its OWI problem.