Wisconsin Senate advances bill targeting drunken drivers

| 11/12/2009

While there is often debate about how to make travel safer, few argue that reducing incidences of drunken driving would go a long way in improving safety.

Intent on making travel on Wisconsin’s more than 236,000 miles of roads safer for motorists, truckers and others, the state’s Senate has unanimously approved a bill that would toughen rules on drinking and driving in the state.

Wisconsin has the highest rate of drunken driving in the nation. According to state figures, alcohol-related crashes killed 234 people in 2008, and injured more than 4,000 people. Mothers Against Drunk Driving have cited lax drunken driving laws among the contributing factors.

An effort to overhaul the state’s drunken driving rules includes a requirement for more drivers to install ignition interlock devices on their vehicles and for making some fourth drunken driving offenses felonies. The bill – SB66 – has moved to the Assembly where the chamber approved their own drunken driving measure in September, but they adjourned for the year without voting on the Senate version.

However, Gov. Jim Doyle is considering calling lawmakers in for a special session on another topic before the end of the year. That could open the door to a quicker resolution on the drunken driving bill.

Both versions are similar. They would make driving drunk a felony on a fourth offense within five years instead of waiting until the fifth offense in some cases. A first-time offender would face a $300 fine only if a child under 16 is in the vehicle.

Ignition interlocks would be required for repeat offenders, as well as first-time offenders with blood-alcohol levels of at least 0.15 percent – nearly double the legal limit of 0.08 percent.

Interlocks are hooked up to the ignition of vehicles. Once such a device is installed, a driver must blow into a mouthpiece, which measures the amount of alcohol on a person’s breath. If the driver blows clean, the car will then start; if not, it won’t budge.

In addition, second- and third-time offenders could reduce their time behind bars by completing drug and alcohol treatment.

Because Assembly and Senate lawmakers must work out what are described as “minor differences,” the delay is likely to prevent the legislation from being signed into law until after the first of the year. Gov. Jim Doyle has said he supports the bill.

“We agree on most of the major steps needed to tackle this problem. But this issue is too important to let the calendar dictate the timetable,” Assembly Speaker Mike Sheridan, D-Janesville, said in a written statement.

To view other legislative activities of interest for Wisconsin in 2009, click here.

– By Keith Goble, state legislative editor

Editor’s Note: Please share your thoughts with us about the legislation included in this story. Comments may be sent to statelegislativedesk@ooida.com.