Take a page from Sweden’s book on drunk driving

Sep 25, 2017 by

Drunk driving accident (copy)

Gary Peterson –

Two small but alarming articles in the Eau Claire Leader Telegram recently detailed the arrests of two men for repeat Operating While Intoxicated (OWI), one for fifth offense, the other for sixth. Both were also charged with failure to install the court-ordered Breathalyzer ignition interlock.

My hometown paper, the Rice Lake Chronotype, ran articles in July alone on five drivers arrested with five or more prior OWI convictions, a fraction of the 270 drivers statewide in 2015 who were still driving with five or more OWI convictions.

Do we really allow these “dedicated drunks” with multiple OWI convictions — ticking time bombs in 2-ton potential weapons on wheels — to keep driving? Are our drunk-driving laws really that lax?

Well yes, they are. Wisconsin is the only state in the nation where first-offense OWI is not a crime, but merely a civil citation. The first conviction is a slap on the wrist in which the driver pays a fine, endures minor driving restrictions, loses a few driver’s-license points, and gets back into the driver’s seat. Not until the fourth OWI conviction does drunk driving become a felony.

The results of our incredibly lenient drunk-driving laws are borne out on our highways. The statistics are jaw-dropping.

• 2,577 people were killed by drunken drivers in Wisconsin from 2003 to 2012.

• In 2015, alcohol was a contributing factor in 190 traffic deaths.

• The DOT says 70 percent of those 190 deaths were caused by drunk drivers with multiple OWI convictions.

• These grim statistics make Wisconsin the fourth- most-dangerous state in the country for drunk driving, according to carinsurancecomparison.com.

What’s wrong with this picture? And can we change it? Other states have, as have other countries, most notably Sweden.

In 1994, Sweden had an equally grim picture and took bold strokes to turn the narrative around. First, they set the blood alcohol threshold for OWI at 0.02 — four times lower than Wisconsin’s 0.08. Then they set mandatory jail time for an OWI conviction — even the first one. Finally, the Swedes realized that just removing the drunk driver from the driver’s seat was not enough; they also needed to remove the drunk’s car from his garage and onto the auction block. When Sweden’s vehicle-confiscation law was instituted in 1994, many Saabs and Volvos went on the auction block until drinkers got the message.

Have the tough laws worked for Sweden? An alcohol-impaired driver in Sweden causing a highway death is now only 3.3 percent of all fatal accidents. In the U.S., the rate averages 10 times that — 38.6 percent. Wisconsin’s rate is even higher. Sweden’s rate of arrests for second and third-offense OWI is understandably near zero, while Wisconsin’s is off the chart.

Wisconsin’s drunk-driving statute, 346.63, sets penalties for 10 levels of OWI convictions with increasing fines, license suspensions, and jail time at each level. If the statute worked to stop repeat drunk driving, we wouldn’t need 10 levels. Sweden’s law stops the repeat drunk driver and needs only three levels.

A possible plan for Wisconsin — modeled after Sweden’s — to reduce our 10 levels to three may stop the carnage. It might be called “Three Strikes and You Walk.”

First Strike: The first OWI conviction, a criminal misdemeanor, would bring the driver before a judge. If the judge ordered a Breathalyzer ignition-interlock device installed on the car, the vehicle would be impounded and the device installed by the arresting agency. More importantly, the clock would start ticking.

Second Strike: If the driver goes OWI-free for a prescribed period, the judge could expunge the misdemeanor from the driver’s record. However, if a second OWI occurs within that period, the judge would have a full range of punitive options to put the fear of the state into the two-time offender and remind him or her that the clock is still ticking — and there are no more second chances. The judge could also suspend the drunk’s license for a good long time, say until the Vikings win a Superbowl.

Third Strike: The third OWI conviction would trigger a felony charge — and confiscation and sale of the offender’s vehicle by the DMV. Title would go to the DMV, which would sell the vehicle by any appropriate means. Proceeds from the sale might be split three ways:

1) Any lien remaining on the car from a lending institution would be paid in full.

2) The state would hire more AODA counselors, with specialized training in alcohol-addiction treatment.

3) The Legislature could apportion an annual amount to the Wisconsin Tavern League to develop and implement effective programs to curb drunken driving. Traditionally, this group has opposed tougher drunk-driving laws. This plan would give them buy-in to be part of the solution and help solve this perennial problem that gives their industry a black eye.

The Swedes have this figured out. We need similar tough legislation to end our repeat-OWI driving madness. Call or write your senators and assemblymen, urging them to draft and/or support no-nonsense legislation like this to replace 346.63. Better yet, send this op/ed to your senator and assembly representative. Legislators’ email addresses can be found at http://legis.wisconsin.gov.

I grieved when a friend lost his beautiful wife when a five-OWI drunk ran a stop sign and T-boned her car. But when a six-OWI drunk rear-ended the car of a Rice Lake family at a stop sign, killing the two little daughters in the back seat and paralyzing their little friend, I screamed, “Enough!” The lenient deadliness of 346.63 cannot continue.

Ask your legislators if they would support tough legislation like Three Strikes and you Walk. And don’t take no for an answer.

Gary Peterson, from Rice Lake, is a retired technical writer now building wooden canoes to use fly fishing on northern Wisconsin rivers.

Source: Gary Peterson: Take a page from Sweden’s book on drunk driving | Column | host.madison.com

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