Time for state’s OWI laws to get sober to reality

You can say one thing about Wisconsin — folks take the second item in “Eat, drink and be merry” very seriously. Have a beer or three. Enjoy some wine. Tequila? Sure thing.

However, many of those who imbibe in alcohol decide that it doesn’t have the same intoxicating effects on them that it would everyone else. They drive the wrong way on divided highways, wrap their vehicles around trees and poles, and occasionally kill someone.

So what does Wisconsin do when someone empties a bar of its liquor and gets behind the wheel? It gives said offender a civil citation if it’s the first time. It’s not a crime until you’ve done it multiple times and proven your judgment to be as solid as melting snow — or until your actions have forced municipalities to change the population number on their signs.

Wisconsin is the only state in the union that does not treat first time drunk driving offenses as a crime. Instead of putting them in jail, we slap them with monetary fines, then we clutch our pearls and shake our heads when we see a newspaper headline about someone being arrested for a 15th OWI.

Here are our current OWI penalties. For the first offense, the fine is $150 to $300, and you don’t spend any time in jail, according to nolo.com, one of the web’s largest libraries of consumer-friendly legal information. The fine goes up to $350 to $1,100 for a second offense, and jail time varies from five days to six months. The third offense bumps up the jail time to 45 days on up to a full year, with fines ranging from $600 to $2,000.

Nolo points out that drunk drivers get their licenses revoked for six to nine months on the first offense, with the time period going up with subsequent offenses, but that hasn’t proven to be much of a deterrent. Looking at the city and county police blotters is like looking at alphabet soup when you look at how many incidents of operating after revocation or operating after suspension are on them.

Now, a pair of Republican lawmakers hope to get a bill passed in the Wisconsin Legislature. Sen. Alberta Darling and Rep. Jim Ott announced the bill to The Associated Press on Thursday and said they were looking for additional sponsors.

Their proposal would impose a 30-day jail sentence for a first offense with a fine of $500 for first offenders. They also hope to up the penalties for fifth- and sixth-time offenders from six months of incarceration to 18.

This bill announcement comes on the heels of an interview with Tony Evers, the incoming governor, who included the criminalizing of first-offense OWI on his wish list. Apparently, his statement came after a firefighter in Madison was killed by a drunk driver while trying to aid someone stuck in the snow on New Year’s Eve.

Talk is one thing, but action is another. The Legislature has talked for years about cracking down on drinking and driving, but members get jelly bellies when it comes to criminalizing the first offense. Exactly what will it take to make lawmakers see that turning a blind eye to the drunks in our midst is ineffective? Will it require the accidental death of family members of multiple representatives and senators before they get off their bureaucratic butts and make good laws? How high should the death toll be?

A report from the Centers for Disease Control has some shocking statistics when it comes to drinking and driving in Wisconsin. From 2003 to 2012, 2,577 people were killed by drunk drivers. When asked if they got behind the wheel after drinking too much, 3.1 percent of Wisconsin residents said they did, compared with only 1.9 percent nationwide. Either a lot of the respondents nationwide were fibbing, or Wisconsin’s got itself a big, old drunk driving problem.

Here’s another statistic for you: In 2015, one person every 2.9 hours was either killed or injured by a drunk driver in Wisconsin. That means families are saddled with funeral costs, hospital bills, even extended care for loved ones who are paralyzed or otherwise unable to care for themselves after being injured by a drunk driver. Yet if it’s the first time, the drivers get a slap on the wrist and a minor inconvenience to their disposable income. How exactly is that fair?

Wisconsin has been slow to evolve with the rest of the states when it comes to dealing with drunks that decide calling a cab or a friend for a ride is just too much trouble and try to use their sudsy vision to find their way home. Wisconsin has a lot of good things going for it, but its perpetual permissiveness of driving drunk is a hideous black eye that needs to be rectified.

It’s time for the state to wake up and take notice. Being seen as kind to drunk drivers is not a reputation befitting this great agricultural state, and legislators need to bring OWI laws into the 21st century. It’s imperative that our elected officials take action this year and send a message that drinking and driving is not quaint — it’s a crime.

Lee Pulaski is the city editor of The Shawano Leader. Readers can contact him at lpulaski@newmedia-wi.com.