Wisconsin beefed up its drunken driving laws this year. Really. Gov. Scott Walker signed related legislation April 8. The bill was so weak, however, that it didn't even warrant mention in an Associated Press roundup hitting the highlights of the 62 he signed that day.
Previously, a drunken driver who injured someone faced a possible sentence of between 30 days and one year in jail. The bill Walker signed requires the person to spend at least 30 days behind bars. It also makes clear that someone convicted a seventh, eighth or ninth time must spend at least three years in prison.
Feel safer now? Didn't think so.
The measure was one of few related to drunken driving that passed during the recently concluded legislative session. To argue lawmakers didn't do enough to address the problem might be the year's biggest understatement.
Janesville Gazette columnist Steven Walters explained that a new study by the Foundation for Advancing Alcohol Responsibility suggests Wisconsin isn't among the worst 10 states in drunken driving problems. Of course, a research organization funded by top U.S. distillers conducted the study. If you think it's credible, you'll probably believe results of a campaign poll conducted on behalf of either major political party. In other words, the fox again guards the henhouse.
Leaders of Mothers Against Drunk Driving distilled the foundation's analysis and argued Wisconsin must be on anyone's "top 10" list.
You already knew that.
Still, lawmakers closed shop so they can hit the campaign trail. Wisconsin remains the only state where a first drunken driving offense doesn't even rate a misdemeanor crime unless someone younger than 16 is in the car. Instead, it's a simple traffic ticket.
The foundation focused its ratings on numbers of deaths caused by drunken driving per 100,000 residents. Still, it admitted Wisconsin had the highest percentage of people who engage in binge drinking - defined as downing five or more drinks per occasion.
That's nothing to grin and toast about.
Alcohol is woven into Wisconsin's cultural fabric. Milwaukee's professional baseball team plays at Miller Park, and it's always "Miller time" for too many Wisconsinites. Tailgate parties that include much drinking are as legendary as the Green Bay Packers. Too often, game-day drinking comes before driving.
Nothing will change until lawmakers at least make that first offense a misdemeanor. Every repeat offender should be required to wear an alcohol-detecting ankle bracelet.
Lawmakers who fear that such measures would cost our justice system hundreds of millions more dollars ignore the potential deterrents that might reduce these estimates. They ignore the toll that fatal crashes and repeat offenses take on worker productivity, families and our social system. They also ignore that a long-overdue boost in Wisconsin's tiny beer and liquor taxes could offset court and jailing costs.
When those running for legislative offices this fall ask for your votes, ask whether they'll resist the powerful alcohol lobby's money and what specifically they'll do to get tough on drunken driving.