Key lawmaker wrong to resist smart OWI bill

January 16, 2019 GMT

Sen. Van Wanggaard, R-Racine, needn’t worry about Wisconsin “being strict on drunk driving.”

The sad reality is that our state is incredibly lenient.

Wisconsin, for example, is the only state in the nation that doesn’t charge first-time drunken drivers with a misdemeanor crime.

Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, and Rep. Jim Ott, R-Mequon, want to change that. Instead of treating a first offense for operating while intoxicated like a traffic ticket, Darling and Ott would criminalize first-time OWI, putting it on par with other misdemeanors such as shoplifting and disorderly conduct.

Wanggaard, who leads the Senate Judiciary and Public Safety Committee, spoke against the proposal last week.

“We want to feel like we’re really being strict on drunk driving,” Wanggaard told the Associated Press. “But it’s not about punishing that person that made the poor choice. It’s about directing them to make good choices.”

Wanggaard has a point: State efforts to deter drunken driving should include education and treatment for alcohol abuse, not just penalties. But criminalizing first-time OWI isn’t remotely draconian, given that every other state has done so.

Wisconsin ranks high for binge drinking and drunken driving. According to the latest statistics from the state Department of Transportation, 190 people were killed and 2,900 injured in alcohol-related crashes in 2015. And while repeat offenders appropriately get lots of attention, most drunken-driving injuries and deaths are caused by first-time violators.

The Republican-run Assembly favored making a first offense a misdemeanor in 2013. But the GOP-led Senate balked, fearing taverns may lose business. Senators should remember that neighboring states still have plenty of bars, despite dealing with OWI in more serious ways.

Democratic Gov. Tony Evers said he’s open to Darling and Ott’s sensible change.

“We have to find ways to make the first offense more meaningful to the offenders so they don’t offend again or don’t offend the first time,” Evers said. “Whether that’s making it a felony or not, I’m not sure.”

Just to be clear: Nobody is talking about making it a felony. The proposal is to make a first offense a misdemeanor.

Wanggaard worries the lives of drunken drivers will be “destroyed” because of “a notation on their record.” But Darling and Ott’s bill would allow first-timers to expunge their records if they avoid a second offense for five years.

Wanggaard should give more consideration to the innocent people whose lives are truly destroyed when drunken drivers crash into them.

Wisconsin must stop being the most lenient state for OWI in the nation. Darling and Ott’s bill would help erase that dubious and deadly distinction.