Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism
Under the Influence

Advocates Say State Not Serious About Drunken Driving

Four members of state task force on drunk driving resigned, calling it "a hollow process." Meanwhile legislative bills on issue have gone nowhere. Second story in a series.

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Dr. Richard Brown, a national expert on substance abuse screening and intervention, resigned from the state’s task force and “remain(s) pessimistic that serving on that committee can actually make a difference in our state.” Photo by Jeff Miller / University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Dr. Richard Brown, a national expert on substance abuse screening and intervention, resigned from the state’s task force and “remain(s) pessimistic (it) can actually make a difference in our state.” Photo by Jeff Miller / University of Wisconsin-Madison.

In June, four members of a state task force created to combat drunken driving resigned, saying they would no longer lend credibility to a “hollow process” in which the alcohol industry had too much sway.

In their resignation letter, the four accused the Wisconsin Department of Transportation’s Statewide Impaired Driving Task Force of focusing “on interventions that have little impact or are not proven to be effective.” They cited various slights that led them to conclude the state was uninterested in their input.

WisDOT Secretary Mark Gottlieb, a former Republican state lawmaker, has tried to contain the damage. He met with three of the resignees and sent a conciliatory letter promising changes and inviting their renewed participation. The 38-member task force, which produced an August 2013 report outlining goals, continues to meet.

One resignee, Julia Sherman of the Wisconsin Alcohol Policy Project, called the sit-down with Gottlieb productive, saying “we all left with a feeling that we had been heard.”

But Sherman, whose grievances include the group’s use of outdated alcohol industry documents she called “one step from propaganda,” is still weighing whether to return. She signed a follow-up letter to Gottlieb that stressed lingering concerns about the influence of the alcohol industry in guiding state policy.

Another resignee, Madison family physician Dr. Richard Brown, a national expert on substance abuse screening and intervention, is sure he will not be back. He thinks the group has little “policymaking clout” and appears to exist largely to fulfill a mandate for federal highway funding.

“I remain pessimistic that serving on that committee can actually make a difference in our state,” Brown said. “We really need a higher body to set a policy course.”

Brown, who serves as clinical director of the Wisconsin Initiative to Promote Healthy Lifestyles, cited “decades of research” on which approaches work. Among the most promising, in his view, are sobriety checkpoints, holding bars legally liable for the consequences of over-serving, and reducing overall binge drinking, a category in which Wisconsin has led the nation.

Sherman added that the state needs to take a broader approach. “Less than 20 percent of alcohol-related deaths are caused by impaired driving,” she said.

Bills Found Diverse Ways To Die

Another indication of the state’s lack of commitment to this issue is the record of bills aimed at addressing drunken driving that went nowhere. More than a dozen bills were introduced in the 2013-14 legislative session and almost all failed to pass. (For a list of bills and outcomes) Here are some examples. The first four bills listed here were authored by Republicans, the last two by Democrats.

AB 68: Would have made first-offense operating while intoxicated a crime (OWI) for those testing at about twice the legal limit, and toughened penalties for second offenses. An amendment axed these provisions, but would have made second offenses a crime even if they do not occur within 10 years of a first. The amended bill passed the state Assembly, 88-7, but was never taken up by the Senate.

AB 69: Called for mandatory minimum sentences for OWI offenders who cause various degrees of injury. It was backed by law enforcement and opposed as an unfunded mandate by the Wisconsin Counties Association. An Assembly committee recommended passage 7-2 but the bill never came up for a vote in either house.

AB 72: Would have allowed judges to seize motor vehicles used in third and subsequent OWI offenses. Several lobby groups including Mothers Against Drunk Driving and the Wisconsin Troopers Association registered in support; none registered in opposition. An Assembly committee recommended passage 9-0, but the bill never came up for a vote.

AB 467: Barred people required to install ignition interlock devices from driving any vehicle without it. The bill had lobby support from MADD, law enforcement and the Coalition for Ignition Interlock Manufacturers; there were no registered opponents. Hearings were held in both houses and the bill passed the state Assembly. There was no Senate vote.

AB 738: Mandated that all persons convicted of OWI install ignition interlock devices, even first offenders without super-high BAC levels. Was supported by MADD but opposed by the Tavern League of Wisconsin. The bill never had a hearing or vote in either house.

AB 846: Would have ended Wisconsin’s distinction as the only state in the nation where first-offense OWI is not a crime. Was introduced late in the session; no group registered in support or opposition. No action in either house.

Bill Lueders is the Money and Politics Project director at the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism (www.WisconsinWatch.org). The Center produces the project in partnership with MapLight.

The Center collaborates with Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Television, other news media and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.

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