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Time for Wisconsin to take tough stance on drunk driving PDF Print E-mail

Letter to the Editor:

As Cheeseheads, we have a lot to be proud of in our state. For starters, there’s the Green Bay Packers, the Milwaukee Brewers and a host of other highly-successful professional and college sports teams.

We have beautiful lakes and forests that boast some of the nation’s finest scenery as well as hunting and fishing. We have some of the best festivals and events in the country — Summerfest, world championship snowmobile racing, and dozens of county fairs and festivals in each town every summer.

But there is one fact about Wisconsin which we cannot be proud of — 26% of Wisconsin drivers admit to driving under the influence of alcohol.

Of the 28,213 drunken driving arrests in Wisconsin in 2011, 61% were first-time offenders. But Wisconsin law does not treat a first-offense operating while intoxicated (OWI) as a crime. Instead it’s considered a municipal violation, much like a speeding ticket.

If two-thirds of all OWI arrests are first offenders, shouldn’t we ask ourselves if Wisconsin’s current laws provide sufficient deterrence to prevent a first OWI?

Studies show that nearly 75% of convicted drunk drivers perceive the most effective sanctions and interventions in stopping drunk driving is mandatory jail time, mandatory fines and ignition interlock devices. Yet in Wisconsin, we slap the wrist on a first offense.

My younger brother, Rob, was a victim of a first-offense drunk driver in 1983 at the age of 16. He suffered a traumatic brain injury that left him unable to see, speak, swallow or move. He was confined to a bed and a wheelchair for 30 years, receiving his food through a tube placed directly into his stomach.

On Feb. 14 of this year, at the age of 45, Rob died as a result of complications from his injuries. My parents were at Rob’s bedside every day for 30 years to ensure his dignity despite his disabilities.

After losing his private health insurance and being deemed an uninsurable high risk, Rob received a $1 million of support in the form of Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security Supplemental Security Income and other programs in order to provide his health care and skilled nursing nearly around the clock for 30 years.

My mother gave up her career as an investigative journalist so that she could provide bedside care and manage the paperwork required by the various agencies. My father passed away five years ago, never again hearing his son speak. Rob gave up his dreams of working on a NASCAR pit crew.

Have we done enough to prevent a first offense? Or enough to deter a second offense? I believe that real change can take place by criminalizing a first offense.

Legislation has been introduced by Rep. James Ott, 23rd Assembly District, seeking to criminalize a first-offense OWI. Tough consequences would deter those who might think, “I’m OK, I just had a few,” from getting behind the wheel.

If enacted, this Assembly Bill 68 comes at a cost of millions of taxpayer dollars to our law enforcement agencies, court system and prisons and jails. But so did the cost of caring for my brother for 30 years, as well as the medical and rehabilitative care provided to the thousands of others who have been injured by drunk drivers on Wisconsin roads each year.

If Assembly Bill 68 keeps at least a few more drivers from getting behind the wheel intoxicated, and saves a few more innocent people from death or injury, then it will serve its purpose.

Please contact your representative and urge them to support Assembly Bill 68. It could save your life or the life of someone you love.

Sue Harris


Tuesday, July 23, 2013 5:11 PM

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