Can You Change The “wisconsin Drinking Culture?” Do You Need To?

In the effort to fight drunk driving, there’s no doubt the country is making progress. But there’s also no doubt that the progress is not even. In every class there are star students and laggards, and so is it with anti-DUI efforts. Some states do everything they can to address the issue of drinking and driving.

And some states are, well, Wisconsin.

To be fair, the rate of alcohol-related crashes went up all over the country last year. But Wisconsin has a unique problem it’s been grappling with for decades. Accurately or not, it’s termed the “Wisconsin drinking culture.”

In simple terms, drinking is popular in Wisconsin, so much so that drinking and driving is tolerated just a little more than it is in most other places. The most obvious example of this is the first offense. Everywhere else in the USA a first OWI is a criminal offense. In Wisconsin it’s an infraction – not much worse than a broken taillight.

In a news report, Wisconsin State Senator Christ Larson, D-Milwaukee said what’s needed is to change the Wisconsin drinking culture.

Not just change the laws. Change the culture.

Germans, Beer, and the Cultural Myth

Where does the leniency come from? People like to talk about Wisconsin’s German roots. True, there are a lot of Schmidts, Beckers, and Schultzes in the phone book. All those Germans love their beer – witness Wisconsin’s brewing tradition.

But hold on.  Busch has been brewing in Missouri as long as Miller has been in Wisconsin. And Missouri doesn’t coddle drunk drivers.

Do Wisconsinites really make – and down – that much beer? In terms of craft breweries, Wisconsin isn’t even in the top ten, and in beer consumption it’s knocked out of the top five by Vermont. Vermont.

And as to Wisconsin’s German heritage, well … Germans went everywhere in America. Certainly Wisconsin is no more German than Pennsylvania. Texas and Missouri were also centers of German immigration. And while Milwaukee was popular with German immigrants in the Nineteenth Century, so were Cleveland and Cincinnati. And Ohio is a lot tougher on drunk drivers than Wisconsin is.

Follow the Money

A better indicator of why Wisconsin doesn’t like to get tough on drunk drivers is to see who would be out money if they did. The most obvious losers would be bars and restaurants. And Wisconsin has the Tavern League, one of the most powerful lobbies against strong anti OWI legislation.

The state did pass a law last year making a fourth OWI offense a felony, and increasing penalties for a fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth ninth and tenth offenses. But it also made the mistake of allowing offenders to join a “24/7” sobriety program instead of installing an ignition interlock in their vehicles. An ignition interlock, or car breathalyzer, prevents a vehicle from starting if the driver has been drinking.

24/7 programs have their place, but they are not substitutes for ignition interlocks. The simple reason is, if a person has a slip in a 24/7 program then nothing prevents them from getting into a vehicle and driving. Only ignition interlocks protect the public.

Change Laws First – Culture Will Follow

49 states have criminalized first drunk driving offenses, and those states have managed to overcome their German, Greek, Dutch, Irish, Swedish, African, Spanish, French, Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Polish, Mexican, Russian, Vietnamese, Filipino and other cultural immigrant traditions to support the efforts to reduce the number of alcohol-related road fatalities.

Wisconsin culture is not that big a roadblock. It can be moved aside, if the people who will be most affected by better road safety laws – motorists, pedestrians, families – get together and demand them.


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