Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Some Legislators Still Balking At Getting Tough With First-Time OWI Offenders

Proposals galore - - ignition lock devices, felony charges for third-time offenders, and more - - but too many state legislators continue to dance around a basic and indefensible flaw in Wisconsin's drunk driving statutes:

The first-time offense, which today in Wisconsin is still a ticket, and unless legislators face reality, will remain only a ticket if kneed 'reform' proposals become law.

Wisconsin is the only state that treats a first-time OWI arrest as a non-criminal ticket.

There has been a concerted media effort about drunk driving in Wisconsin - - where we also lead the nation in binge drinking and other alcohol-related misbehavior.

The legislature needs to confront that glaring loophole in state law and make a first-time OWI conviction a misdemeanor - - because it is reckless, willful conduct that endangers motorists, passengers, pedestrians and property.

And the state should make a second offense a felony, putting an end to Wisconsin's kid gloves' tolerance for drunk driving and for repeat offenders.

It's a copout to say that Wisconsin's alcohol-friendly culture is too ingrained to withstand tough laws.

The state also needs to begin alcohol education in the schools at an early age, but no later than the end of middle school.


Anonymous said...

I'll say it again: We are not going to punish our way out of this problem. Already the cost of a first-offense OWI (fines, surcharges, mandated chemical assements, license reinstatement fees and increased insurance premiums)is more than adequate to deter any thoughtful person. And while I agree that the message of responsible alcohol use must start early (if persons choose to use alcohol at all) the schools already pound that message beginning in early grade school. Programs such as COPS and DARE, along with all shades of "health" class, have kids so cynical by the time they reach middle school that they absolutely tune the message out.

James Rowen said...

So let's have the legislature refine the message: first-time offense is a misdemeanor. Second offense is a felony.

Given the OWI carnage on our highways, the state's message is insufficient.

Right now, Wisconsin is enabling drunken driving on its roads with weak penalties.

Anonymous said...

Yes, we will punish our way out.

When folks start to realize that there are severe penalties for first-time offenses, the message will come through loud and clear. The cost of a first-time offense is not severe enough, especially when we have lawyers touting how they will "help" with OWI offenses.

Sorry, it is past time to get harsh.

And why wouldn't kids tune the message right now out? Get caught, no big deal in Wisconsin. How about if they KNEW that they'd lose their license for a year, get a huge fine and maybe even a little time behind the crossbar motel?

It's amazing that some will coddle first-time offenders with the "oh they made a mistake" defense. Sorry, doesn't wash with me. Getting behind the wheel while impared is not, nor ever will be, a mistake. You make a decision. And we have to show that bad decisions have consequences.

Zeus said...

I would like to know exactly how the average person is supposed to know whether or not they are .07 or .08?

Maybe the state can mandate breathalyzers in establishments that serve alcohol and the patrons can choose to pay the 5 - 10 dollars for the test if they are unsure. Then they would have no excuse.

I am against drunk driving, but I am not against having drinks and then driving and until it becomes more reasonable to know your exact condition it would be ridiculous to charge a first time .08 with even a misdemeanor.

James Rowen said...

To Zeus: There are internet and hard-copy charts available that shows how many drinks per hour it takes a man or woman of different body weights to reach .08 and other readings.

But the issue is less whether you are at .07 or .09. The issue is - - are you impaired and are you driving in an unsafe manner?

So some of this is a legal question and some is a commonsense issue. If you are not legally impaired at .07, is it still safe and smart to drive?

Zeus said...

Charts are not accurate and there is absolutely nothing wrong with driving @ .07.... That's why it's legal.

I am sure many people can drive just as safely @ .10.

The point I am making is that if I have a few drinks and technically blow a .08 that does not necessarily mean that I am a public danger to safety and should be treated like a common criminal. It's over kill, unless I am a repeat offender.

I would be in favor of stronger laws for first time offenders if they were at least double the legal limit.

Anonymous said...

This is a critical point, of course: If one does not have a prohibited alcohol concentration,0.08 or more in most cases, should one still get behind the wheel? The overwhelming body of evidence is that alcohol is impairing at all concentrations, which is why most of Europe prohibits driving with concentrations of 0.05 or more. Even Wisconsin has prohibited concentrations of 0.04 and 0.02 for some categories of drivers. The point here is that unless driving with any alcohol content is banned, the law allows impairment by alcohol (and other drugs as well, but that is for another day) until the point that one cannot drive "safely." And what is "safely?" Evidently, the point at which one is involved in a crash. (Here again we are speaking of drivers who do not have a prohibited alcohol content.)

With regard to a prohibited alcohol content, one relies on those published charts at one's own peril. Look at the warnings on the Wisconsin DOT charts.

The urge to "get tough" is a very slippery slope. The penalties for causing injury or death by OWI are truly draconian, even for drivers with an otherwise clean record. It is well to check emotion at the door as this discussion goes on.

James Rowen said...

To Zeus; I'm not sure why you would want to drink and drive if you thought you were at .07, even it is below the legal limit for impairment.

I'm not a doctor, but I would bet that at some time during the day or night, or given other circumstances - - personal, physical, etc. - - .07 would be certainly impairing, regardless of the legality, leaving you and others vulnerable to harm.

The man who smashed his truck into the vehicle in Jefferson County a few days ago, resulting in two deaths, was a first-time arrestee for OWI who told officers he thought he was successfully "pacing himself."

Of course, he was not. He was severely impaired.

My point is that it's a risky road to go down.

Anonymous said...

Precisely - It is a very risky road to go down, but one that all to many otherwise good people find themselves upon. Moreover, these otherwise good people are less able to judge their own abilities, due to the alcohol they admittedly have chosen to consume. They intend no harm, but cause harm notwithstanding. The question before the legislature is what shall be done with these people.

The penalties are already severe, even for a OWI first offense without any aggrevating factors. People already understand this: They do not weight the penalty against the "fun" they might miss by drinking responsibly, and then choose to continue drinking because they can bear the penalty. But they wise up very quickly, and very few offend again. It seems to me that increasing the penalties will not change this.

Perhaps the best course of action is not through the legislature but through the media. Trumpet the case in Jefferson County, and so many other cases like it. Have the offender do some restorative justice: Nothing impresses young people like a live person telling their own story, in the flesh, in a classroom. But also show some mercy for the offender. Anyone can make a mistake - ONCE.