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February 22, 2012 | 07:31 AM
We all know how dangerous drunken driving can be. Seeing memorials on the roadside of a drunken driving crash, or reading about a drunken driving incident in the newspaper are reminders that driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs is dangerous, and at times, deadly.

Unfortunately, drunken driving in Wisconsin is far too common. A 2009 national study found that Wisconsin had the highest rate of drunken driving in the nation. That year, 238 people were killed and almost 4,000 others were injured in alcohol-related crashes. Approximately 45 percent of all fatal traffic accidents that year were alcohol related. Over the last few years, the Legislature has taken steps to address this on-going problem, but more needs to be done. To that end, I have authored three pieces of legislation this session relating to drunk driving.

The first, Senate Bill 379, would prohibit a person whose driver's license has been suspended or revoked for a drunken driving offense from purchasing or leasing a motor vehicle. The prohibition would only apply during the period of time when the suspension or revocation is in effect. Any person who violates this prohibition would be subject to additional fines and penalties.

Next, Senate Bill 158 would eliminate the ability for an individual to immediately obtain an occupational license if they were convicted of driving while drunk. Under the bill, the person would have to wait a minimum of 15 days before seeking such a license.

Another bill I have authored is Senate Bill 76, which requires the drunken driver — rather than the taxpayers — to bear the burden of costs associated with drunken driving tests. Each year, law enforcement agencies have had to take on the costs of testing alleged drunken drivers, which only adds costs to local taxpayers. The language of Senate Bill 76 was added to the state budget last year and is now law.

In addition to those measures, I am a co-sponsor of two other drunken driving-related bills, Senate Bill 152 and Senate Bill 154. As Wisconsin is the only state in the nation that treats a first-offense drunken driving the same as a traffic ticket, Senate Bill 152 would make the first offense OWI with a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.15 or greater a criminal offense. Senate Bill 154 increases the penalties for driving a vehicle under the influence of an intoxicant or other drug. In some instances, the fatalities and injuries caused by a first time offender are no different than those caused by a repeat offender.

All of those efforts are an important part of solving this problem, but there are other factors and conditions which legislation may not be able to address. One of the major obstacles is the behavior of people who choose to drive while under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Many of these offenders have substance abuse problems and perhaps give little to no consideration to the legal consequences of their actions. Court mandated treatment programs are beneficial, but have somewhat limited effect.

Some who participate in such programs may do so only to fulfill a court requirement and may not truly commit themselves to solving their problem. Similarly, drivers' license suspensions and revocations have limited effectiveness as well, as many repeat offenders continue to drive their vehicles regardless of whether or not their licenses are suspended or revoked.

Another obstacle is the culture of alcohol in Wisconsin which permeates and perpetuates itself from one generation to the next. It is no secret that Wisconsinites consistently rank high in their use, and abuse, of alcoholic products. Our college campuses receive notorious distinctions each year for binge drinking. Many of our favorite pastimes and sporting events involve alcohol. Bars and taverns offer incentives and price reductions for their customers on a daily basis.

Certainly, tougher laws can serve as a catalyst to change our attitude towards excessive alcohol consumption, but for some, that change may only come when they make a conscious decision to do so. It is important to understand that new laws are only a part of the solution, and only effective for those who choose to correct their habits and make more responsible decisions. Driving under the influence can lead to serious consequences for everyone involved. We all play a role in correcting this problem, and I look forward to the day when we can truly prevent these tragedies caused by individuals who choose to operate a vehicle while intoxicated.

Sen. Kedzie can be reached in Madison at P.O. Box 7882, Madison, WI 53707-7882 or by calling toll-free (800) 578-1457. He may be reached in the district at (262) 742-2025 or online at www.senatorkedzie.com.


Tags: Neal Kedzie

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