Tragically, one of the teachers at a local middle school died as a result of driving while intoxicated just after I'd written this and before it got to Press. The teacher, popular with her students and colleagues, had a blood alcohol level .24%.
When it’s bad to be No. 1
Saturday night. Midnight. While heading home from a long and happy day at the Milwaukee Ukulele Festival, I was nearly picked off by a driver who swerved across three lanes of traffic directly in front of me.
“Damned drunk,” I thought – and then I started counting. I counted four obvious drunk drivers in the 45 minutes of highway time it took to get home.
The next day I read the Saturday paper and found that a woman from Campbellsport had been sentenced to two years in prison for her fifth drunken driving offense. On Sunday, I finally caught up on the previous week’s news and discovered the Assembly had unanimously passed a new law increasing the penalties for drunk driving.
The new law is a disgrace and an indignity to Wisconsin voters. It looks like it was drafted by a frat party kegger committee.
We all know how much drinking and driving is going on. The tragedies spill across the evening news in weekly tides of carnage and death. But when you hear about a drunk driver with six or seven previous convictions, don’t you wonder how he stayed out of prison after the fourth conviction? Me, too. The answer is simple: our laws are designed to let people drive drunk, over and over again.
Bad laws create bad consequences: Wisconsin is number one in the nation when it comes to drunk driving. Number One. The DOT reports that last year we had 42,000 convictions for drunken driving. Approximately 40 percent of all fatal car crashes, and 50 percent of all fatal motorcycle crashes in Wisconsin, were alcohol related. That works out to 234 dead and 4000 injured. In 2008, the US Department of Health and Human Services released a study that showed more than 26 percent of Wisconsin adults admitted they’d driven under the influence of alcohol in the previous year.
Right now, we’re tied with North Dakota as the only states where drunk driving is not a felony until the fifth offense. This bill will make the fourth offense a felony – so watch out you drunk drivers: from now on you can only get caught three times before it gets serious. Wisconsin remains the only state in the Republic that refuses to treat a first offense as a crime.
A few details from the bill show some teeth. For instance, if someone is convicted of a second OWI-related offense AND causes injury, the offense is treated as a felony with fines up to $10,000 and prison time. The bill expands treatment programs and requires ignition interlock devices – a kind of breathalyzer offenders will have to blow through in order to start their car. The new law also lets people reduce jail time by going into treatment programs after a second or third offense. That’s a great idea. Friends in the mental health professions tell me that, a lot of the time, first and second offenders are just stupid and careless but, by the time you get to drunks on their third and fourth offenses, we’re not talking about stupid anymore, we’re talking about serious alcohol and addiction issues. That makes sense: anyone could make a terrible mistake once, or even twice. After that, something more than stupid is involved.
One part of the bill got my attention. Here’s the actual text: This bill makes a fourth OWIrelated offense committed within five years of a prior offense a Class H felony and requires a person who commits a fourth, fifth or sixth OWI-related offense to serve a minimum of two years in prison under a bifurcated sentence. The bill requires a person who commits a seventh, eighth, or ninth OWI-related offense to serve a minimum of three years in prison under a bifurcated sentence and a person who commits a tenth or subsequent OWI-related offense to serve a minimum of four years in prison under a bifurcated sentence.
You don’t include language to cover seventh, eighth, or ninth (!) offenses unless you plan to give someone that many chances. What the 95-0 vote make clear is that all of our legislators thought everyone deserves nine chances to get caught drunk driving. Reading over the bill, I wondered whether our legislators were impaired when they voted. Letting drunk drivers get away with four, much less nine, convictions for OWI is even crazier – and more dangerous – than that inebriated idiot who nearly ran me off the road last Saturday night. Here’s a suggestion: maybe we need to install ignition interlock devices on the doors of the state Capitol.