Steven Walters
The State of Politics

State Leads Nation In Drunk Driving

No state has more ignition interlock stops. Tougher rules needed?

By - Apr 24th, 2017 10:01 am
Car keys and drinks. Photo is in the Public Domain.

Car keys and drinks. Photo is in the Public Domain.

Mothers Against Drunk Drivers (MADD) reports that ignition interlock devices stopped someone too drunk to drive from doing so 348,727 times across America last year. And one out of every 10 of those high-tech interventions – or 37,299 of them – occurred in Wisconsin, which has less than two percent of the nation’s population.

Wisconsin also led the nation in ignition interlock stops in the decade between 2006 and 2016, MADD reported. That’s remarkable, since Wisconsin didn’t enact its interlock requirement for repeat offenders and first-time offenders who had a blood-alcohol content of 0.15 percent or more – almost twice the legal limit of 0.08 percent – until 2010.

But, if you think MADD was congratulating Wisconsin, or suggesting that the ignition interlock be the next state symbol, think again.

“The MADD report shows the alarming number of times Wisconsin drivers have attempted to drive drunk – the highest number of drunk driving attempts in the country over a 10-year period,” said Frank Harris, MADD director of state government affairs.

“This is an indication of the dangerous drinking and driving culture in the state, and why MADD believes Wisconsin should do more to increase the number of these devices installed and ensure compliance with ignition interlock orders,” Harris added.

Wisconsin legislators may be listening, Mr. Harris.

But, no, they are not going to make first-offense OWI a crime; Wisconsin is the only state where it’s a treated like a traffic ticket, albeit a very expensive ticket.

Republican Rep. Jim Ott, who wrote the 2010 ignition interlock law, has a new bill to close a loophole in it. Ott hopes to get a May 2 vote in the Assembly on AB 98; it got a unanimous committee vote.

Currently, there is no penalty for driving without the required interlock before driving privileges are restored by DOT after an OWI conviction.

Ott’s correction would allow a judge to set a date for installation of an ignition interlock and creates a penalty for driving without an interlock before driving privileges are restored.

If a judge orders you to install an ignition interlock on every car you own or are a registered driver, your life just got more complicated:

* You’ll pay a $50 court surcharge, between $75 and $150 to have it installed, and between $1,000 and $1,500 a year to rent the device.

* When you want to drive somewhere, you’ll have to blow into the device, which will read whether your blood-alcohol content violates terms of the court order. If it does, your vehicle won’t start.

* To prevent you from drinking after you start driving, the interlock device requires random on-the-road tests. If you fail that second test, or don’t take it, the car stops and the horn starts blowing.

WisDOT has complete statistics for 2015, when interlocks were ordered after one-third of all OWI convictions. The 10,716 interlocks ordered resulted in 7,774 installations – an installation rate of 72 percent. That was much better than the 2012 installation rate of 47 percent.

Ott said he hopes the 28 percent of interlock devices ordered but never installed were because the one convicted isn’t driving, is using public transportation, or having someone else drive them. But those drivers may have also just ignored the interlock order.

Ott also has two other bills toughening penalties for drunken driving that are much more controversial, and costly. They would impose a mandatory minimum five-year prison term for homicide by OWI and lengthen – from six to 18 months – the mandatory minimum prison sentence for fifth and sixth OWI convictions.

According to WisDOT records, OWI convictions statewide fell by 17 percent – from 37,251 in 2010 to 30,889 in 2015. Numbers on OWI convictions in 2016 were incomplete.

Ott has been pushing for tougher penalties for OWI since his 2006 election to the Assembly. “My hope is that there is less drunken driving,” he said.

Despite that 17 percent drop in OWI convictions, Wisconsin still has “a serious senior drinking problem – and it is getting worse,” said Julia Sherman, UW-Madison’s alcohol policy project coordinator.

Sherman explained: “Alcohol-related vehicular deaths were 15 percent of alcohol-related acute deaths in Wisconsin in 2015. Alcohol-related falls accounted for 37 percent of the acute alcohol-related deaths that year.”

Correction: My column last week wrongly said that increasing the 5 percent state sales tax to 6 percent would raise an additional $1.1 million. The correct amount is $1.1 billion.

Steven Walters is a senior producer for the public affairs channel WisconsinEye. Contact him at

16 thoughts on “The State of Politics: State Leads Nation In Drunk Driving”

  1. Mike says:

    I still believe the state should have create a list (voluntary to be added) for refusal of alcohol sales where people on said list are given vertical ID’s like minors so that they are easily identifiable making it easier to prevent these individuals from buying alcohol from stores and bars. Some people have a problem with alcohol that they are not able to properly deal with. By adding themselves to a “No alcohol sales list”, they might find it a tool with which to help themselves deal with their issue.

    I should probably add that I do not believe this should be used to stop people from drinking. Everyone should be able to retain that right. The list would be used to refuse sales of alcohol, not to prevent people from drinking legally.

  2. JK says:

    The headline is incorrect, but an interesting topic nevertheless. I think if people knew the data on impaired driving in the U.S. they would be less supportive of the MADD organization and their modern day temperance movement. I was hit head-on by a drunk driver. He was out of his mind…may have been on drugs also. He skipped his trial. I had medical bills to pay as a result as well as a totaled car. It never crossed my mind to blame all drinkers or even the very slight fraction of the population who are repeat offenders. I think impaired driving enforcement is out of control in this country. Drunk driving is involved in approximately 10,000 traffic deaths annually. This is .0000027 X the U.S. population. Yet we spend something like $140 Billion on impaired driving annually. It’s become a massive industry. The facts are, my chances of dying in a drunk driving accident are much less than dying in a plain old accident where no one is impaired. It is many times more likely that I would die from bicycling, gunshot, or just plain walking. Perpetuating a $140 Billion industry to avoid incidents that only occur in the slightest margins of error is insanity. Add to it the civil rights and liberties cost of all of the traffic stops and illegal search and seizure. By the way, that is $14 Million per death per year that all of this insanity is failing to avoid.

  3. Vincent Hanna says:

    How is the headline incorrect exactly? Are you seriously suggesting Wisconsin doesn’t have a drunk driving problem? I’ve never heard anyone make that argument before. Not even the Tavern League. Drunk driving accounts for one-third of all traffic-related deaths in this country. I don’t know how anyone could spin that into drunk driving not being a problem. Wisconsin had 24,000 drunk driving convictions in 2015. That’s not out-of-control enforcement. That is a ton of people getting drunk and driving.

  4. Matt says:

    Hey Vince:

    The headline is incorrect exactly because upon a little research on an admittedly hard to find site called “Google” one finds that we are actually fourth.

    So if the issue is journalism rather than drunk driving, one can see the problem with unresearched and crap headlines. And if this website is trying to be an alternative voice to a clearly decaying newspaper in this town, it should let us know if its just going to throw special interest talking points at the wall to see what sticks, or if its going to be journalism. If they want to be Breitbart they should announce it.

  5. Vincent Hanna says:

    No need to be a dick Matt, unless you are one and can’t help it.

    We are 4th in ignition interlock device stops, not 1st? Because that is the measure he is using, the number of ignition interlock device stops. Or maybe you didn’t actually read the story.

  6. Vincent Hanna says:

    As such, the headline isn’t misleading if you bother to read what comes immediately after and the story itself.

  7. AG says:

    So, shouldn’t the title be “Wisconsin leads nation is preventing drunk driving through interlock devices?” 🙂

  8. Vincent Hanna says:

    That’s a nice positive spin yes.

  9. AG says:

    It was either that or “Wisconsin proves to have dumbest citizens in the nation” followed with subtitle of “Highest number of idiots trying to use car after drinking, despite interlock devices.”

    I mean, all of these are good examples of how headline bias affects media coverage and perceptions of readers. While I’m not concerned about this article so much, Steven Walters is by far one of the worst perpetrators of this type of bias.

  10. JPKMKE says:

    How about…”Wisconsin Leads the Nation in Successful Drunk Driving Interlock Bocks” 🙂 🙂

  11. Bruce Murphy says:

    I should note that Walters does not write the headlines. With rare exceptions all are written by the editor, yours truly.

  12. AG says:

    Bruce Murphy is by far one of the worst perpetrators! 😉

  13. Vincent Hanna says:

    I’m still amazed that someone claimed drunk driving in this state is being blown out of proportion.

  14. JK says:

    If you mean to say that you disagree, the facts show that it is too much money spent on an extremely infrequent occurrence (based on million miles driven) with too little results with too much infringement on our liberties. Imagine adding $140 Billion to education or employment.

  15. Hinty says:

    Once, while walking my dog down a bike path that ran behind a bar and its parking area about a half-hour before dusk, I saw a guy come out to his car followed by a woman I recognized as a bartender. He got in his car and pushed the seat back. She leaned into the car and over him. I thought something dirty was happening, so I slowed down. What I thought was a sloppy sex act was instead the bartender blowing into the guy’s BAC monitor so he could drive home drunk. On Wisconsin.

  16. sharon pendleton says:

    This must be a male-perspective-only article…or are they the drunks in question?

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