I’m stuck on these two sentences. I keep reading them over and over again:

Nearly 1 in 5 licensed drivers in Wisconsin — 770,000 — have at least one conviction for operating while intoxicated. And more than 20,000 have at least five OWIs.

These facts didn’t even make it into the headline or the lede in this morning’s Wisconsin State Journal editorial urging the Legislature to do meaningful things about Wisconsin’s endless drunk driving problem.

First, let’s make sure to credit the State Journal for it’s hard-hitting series of stories and its editorial on OWI. They didn’t just tell the story with statistics like those. They told heart-breaking, infuriating stories of repeat drunk drivers who eventually killed someone and of a system that wants to look the other way.

But we see short editorial campaigns like this every few years and nothing happens. I think that’s because some critical mass of Wisconsinites — represented by the powerful Tavern League — don’t want it to happen. If a head-spinning three quarters of a million of us have at least one OWI on our records, how many more have driven drunk and gotten away with it?

The Tavern League is a big part of the problem, but it doesn’t completely explain inaction on drunk driving.

Wisconsin is the only state in which a first OWI is just a ticket. Might as well have been speeding a little or parked in a loading zone. Pay better attention next time and have a nice day.

The policy answers are clear enough and the State Journal provided a nice list of what could be done. But it doesn’t matter. And it won’t matter until the casual attitude so many Wisconsinites have toward driving impaired goes away.

Later today my wife and I are driving 250 miles north to the U.P. We think about this enough that it caused us to get our will done, something we’d been putting off for too long. I hope that Mothers Against Drunk Driving doesn’t get their share any time soon, but don’t credit the Legislature — under either party — for making that drive any safer.

Published by dave cieslewicz

Madison/Upper Peninsula based writer. Mayor of Madison, WI from 2003 to 2011.

3 thoughts on “770,000

  1. The most frustrating thing about those stats is that they are not new information. It’s not as if the State Journal issued a FOIA request to DOT to release the data. It’s been posted publicly on the DOT website for literally years: https://wisconsindot.gov/Pages/safety/education/drunk-drv/ddarrests.aspx

    Some of us have tried to point out these breathtaking stats in years past, to try and get the local media to pay attention to this ongoing travesty enabled by our culture and lax policies, but it’s generally fallen on deaf ears. One outlet actually told me they wouldn’t pursue the story because it lacked a “new angle”. Credit to the State Journal where it’s due though on their thorough and hard hitting series. Another way to think about it: 1 out of every 50 drivers on the road in Wisconsin has a least 3 OWI convictions. Every time you’re on the Beltline you’re almost guaranteed to be sharing it with a habitual drunk driver offender.

    Right after Evers was inaugurated he mentioned he’d be open to criminalizing first offense OWI’s.
    Someone should take him up on the offer – though Jim Ott and Alberta Darling, the biggest champions of the issue, are now both gone from the Legislature. Perhaps someone should interview Fitchburg Rep. Jimmy Anderson, who was paralyzed and lost his entire family when they were hit by a drunk driver.


  2. I lived in Texas for 17 or so years. Their OWI laws were the mirror opposite of Wisconsin’s. We have a friend who is an attorney who did a lot of OWI cases primarily in Ft. Worth. He made a very, very good living. We joked that if his practice was up here he would starve doing that work.

    Neither extreme for the OWI law is good. But a happy medium.

    I have never gotten an OWI, these days I hardly drink anything stronger than water.


  3. As a former municipal prosecutor, I disagree with the push to make first offense OWI a crime. In Wisconsin only the State can prosecute criminal matters. I believe this stems from an old Wisconsin Supreme Court case. In other states like California, municipalities are allowed to prosecute low level crimes. This is the real reason that Wisconsin unlike other states does not criminalize first offense OWI.
    In my experience, municipal prosecutors are generally more experienced, better paid, and have much more time to prosecute first offense OWIs than the typical entry level assistant district attorney . Prosecuting an OWI is not a simple matter. It’s easy to slip up especially if the prosecutor is inexperienced or doesn’t have sufficient time to prepare. Also, whether fair or not, in municipal court a defendant does not have the right to an attorney as he or she is not being accused of a crime.
    ‘Our current state criminal justice system is already under incredible strain. Young DAs get out as soon as they can claim some job experience. On the flip side many criminal cases linger simply because a Public Defender is unavailable.
    If first offense OWIs were criminalized, I believe that many if not most of these cases would be amended down to non-criminal reckless driving citations. Same fine, same 6 points, similar hit to the insurance, but no occupational license requirement and no danger of a second offense charge in the future. Wealthy defendants who could afford experienced defense attorneys would I expect be almost guaranteed these lenient deals.
    While criminalizing OWI first sounds like a great idea, I think it would lead to far fewer convictions especially for the wealthy while even with a conviction, penalties not much different than are currently in place. In the approximately 20 years I served as municipal prosecutor I can count on one hand the cases I lost. But I had sufficient time and experience to do the job.


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