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Our View: Tougher drunk driving laws - maybe this time?

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opinion River Falls, 54022
River Falls Wisconsin 2815 Prairie Drive / P.O. Box 25 54022

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State legislators are again considering tougher penalties for drunken drivers (Assembly Bills 69, 70, 71).

That is good news, but in Wisconsin these sorts of efforts often fall on deaf ears. There is already some resistance to the idea of toughening drunken driving laws.

Everyone knows the numbers. For some time Wisconsin has had one of the worst records in the nation for drunken driving. Statistics showed that at least 220 people have died in alcohol-related crashes in the state every year for a decade. More than 51,000 people have been injured.

For the second legislative session in a row, Rep. Jim Ott (R-Mequon) is trying to pass a host of bills targeting OWI offenders.

Currently, Wisconsin is the only state that doesn’t criminalize the first drunk driving offense. In fact, Wisconsin doesn’t make drunken driving a felony until the fourth offense.

Statistics and studies show that Wisconsin continuously leads the nation in binge drinking, and the state is near the top in drivers who admit driving drunk! Studies show — and we’ve known all along — that Wisconsin’s drinking culture takes a terrible toll in wasted lives and wasted dollars.

But we also know that Wisconsin has a large alcohol interest and, in some cases, a population not all that interested in stiffening penalties.

The bill under current consideration would:

—Mandate at least six months in jail for drunken drivers who cause bodily harm (currently its 30 days).

—Establish a 10-year minimum sentence for drunken driving incidents in which someone is killed (currently there is no minimum prison sentence in those cases).

—Make a third drunken driving offense a felony, mandating at least 45 days in jail (Currently, third offenses are misdemeanors).

The concern already expressed by some lawmakers is cost. The Wisconsin Department of Corrections estimates it would need more than $200 million annually to handle the influx of new inmates. An official from the Wisconsin Association of Counties also testified about the financial impact on their local jails that counties would have to absorb.

“I mean, no matter how much we want to beat this problem, having that fiscal note, it’s unlikely that we’re gonna be able to get this bill to go through,” said Rep. Gary Hebl (D-Sun Prairie).

On the other hand, with tougher penalties, maybe there wouldn’t be as many people willing to take the risk of driving drunk — the number of third offenders, for instance, may drop dramatically.

The bottom line is this — Wisconsin has a drinking problem. It is up to our legislators to do their best to protect the innocent drivers by making things tough on drunk drivers.

The changes deserve to be debated. The changes deserve passage — the sooner the better.

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