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Our View: Lawmakers consider tougher drunk driving laws

Newspapers in our area and across the state often report the names of people arrested for drunk driving, and sometimes those reports include people who have broken the law multiple times.

In Wisconsin, multiple OWI cases are far from abnormal. It is quite common to find reports about people who have been arrested five, six, seven, eight times, and more! Despite these disturbing figures, Wisconsin state laws penalizing drunken driving are among the weakest in the nation.

The good news, some state lawmakers want to change the laws and strengthen the drunken driving penalties.

State Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills) has announced plans to introduce legislation that, among other changes, would make a person's third OWI a felony. Currently, the felony starts at the fourth OWI conviction within five years. Essentially that's how some drivers can get five or six arrests over a period of time that extends beyond five years and still be on the road.

All but seven states set OWI felonies at third offense or below. Most states put this within 10 years or more, rather than Wisconsin's five.

Darling sought to pass the measure in 2009 but faced opposition from those in the Legislature and state Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen; they were concerned about the costs attached to changing the law. Now that recalls and the collective bargaining debates have faded a bit, Darling wants to give the legislation another try.

She said, "We have to get to a point where people are going to think about driving when they're impaired."

Under current law, the first drunken driving charge is merely a traffic offense and gets listed as a crime only if a child younger than 16 is in the car. Wisconsin is the only state to treat first offenses this way. Second and third offenses are criminal misdemeanors with fines attached. Currently a person's fourth OWI within five years is charged as a felony.

With a felony comes with a big fine, along with potential jail time and a black mark on a person's record. Laws have been toughened in recent years, but are still lax compared to most states. Until 2009, the felony bar in Wisconsin was set at five. Legislators in 2009 moved the felony to the fourth offense, toughened first offenses and required repeat offenders to install ignition interlocks, which prevent a vehicle from starting unless drivers prove their sobriety by blowing into an attached Breathalyzer.

Despite the 2009 changes, Wisconsin laws are still much weaker than most others states. That's something that could be changed if legislators support the proposed changes. We hope they do.

The proposal also includes a pilot program for sobriety checkpoints, as well as treatment programs for repeat offenders, to address the underlying causes of OWIs, such as alcoholism and drivers' misplaced confidence that they won't get caught.

The proposal seems to make sense and we believe it is time for Wisconsin to take drunk driving a bit more seriously than it has in the past.