More than 770,000 Wisconsin drivers have OWI conviction as drunken driving crashes rise
The upward trend in crashes, injuries and deaths is forcing safety advocates to double down on their efforts in an attempt to shift the course of the numbers.
MADISON — After decades of progress in the effort to curb intoxicated driving in Wisconsin, those who advocate for stiffer penalties and more prevention efforts are seeing a troubling trend.
As of Tuesday, Dec. 27, Wisconsin had 7,148 crashes that involved impaired drivers this year — the highest number since 2008 and a continued upward trend since 2014, according to preliminary data from the state. The data also show there have been 3,437 crashes involving injuries and 167 fatalities, meaning this year will likely end with more deaths in crashes involving impaired drivers than any year since 2015, when 190 people were killed.
The pandemic has only added to the problem as more people drank, and those who drove while impaired did so at higher speeds due to less traffic on the roads. Traffic fatalities involving impaired drivers in 2020 jumped 17% from 2019 to 167.
A culture of drinking in Wisconsin — a state flush with bars, liquor stores, beer gardens and tailgate parties — has always made the challenge of curbing intoxicated driving an uphill climb. But the upward trend in crashes, injuries and deaths is forcing safety advocates to double down on their efforts in an attempt to shift the course of the numbers.
Increased enforcement plans, more educational programs to reach youth and a push to increase the use of ignition interlock devices are among the efforts. More training is also on the way for police to help identify those drivers who may be impaired by drugs other than alcohol that don't show up on a breathalyzer.
"The crashes we see and the losses people have are so horrific," said Cheryl Wittke, executive director of Safe Communities, a Madison-based nonprofit. "It's such a waste. We still have a long way to go to accept that it's not acceptable."
Of the state's more than 4.2 million licensed drivers, more than 770,000 — or nearly one in five — have at least one conviction for operating while intoxicated on their record, according to the state Department of Transportation. More than 20,000 have at least five OWI convictions.
In many of those cases, the decision motorists made to drink and drive came with deadly consequences.
Three members of a Kenosha County family — a dentist, a registered nurse and a doctor — were killed in 2019 by a repeat drunken driver when his speeding pickup truck slammed into the rear of a sport utility vehicle. The drunken driver was sentenced to 32 years in prison.
In Dane County, Middleton High School seniors John "Jack" Miller, 17, and Evan Kratochwill, 18, along with Madison West senior Simon Bilessi, 17, were killed instantly on Mineral Point Road in October 2021 when their vehicle was struck from behind by a car traveling at 160 mph driven by Eric Mehring, who was intoxicated. Mehring, 31, of Madison, was sentenced last month to 18 years in prison.
Among the victims in 2022 in Wisconsin were a 20-year-old nursing student from Racine, a heavy metal guitarist killed in a wrong-way crash near Hudson and a mother of four in Milwaukee.
"Just plan ahead. Either have a designated sober driver or someone to come pick you up," said Sgt. Jason Russell of the Dane County Sheriff's Office, who was among those who responded to the crash that killed the three teens last year.
"Don't think you're invincible and that it won't happen to you. It's definitely not worth it."
The holiday season can be especially deadly. Late last year there were nearly 400 crashes involving impaired drivers that killed seven people and injured 200, according to the Wisconsin State Patrol, which has been beefing up enforcement through New Year's Day with its "Drive Sober or Get Pulled Over" enforcement campaign.
Deaths in Wisconsin attributed to impaired driving have been more than halved since 2007. But experts say technology improvements, the advent of rideshare services and staffing shortages for some law enforcement agencies around the state — which means fewer arrests — may be masking part of the state's drinking problem and its relationship to driving.
For example, Wisconsin has more roundabouts than most other states. The circular intersections intentionally slow traffic and help reduce the severity of crashes, studies have found. Posts that hold stop signs and other warning signs are getting reflective material to help increase their visibility, speed limits are being modified and rumble strips are now common on highways and can help alert drivers that they may be drifting off a roadway.
In addition, many newer vehicles are equipped with automated crash-reduction systems. They include forward-collision systems that automatically compute the distance between two vehicles and slow a vehicle when it gets too close to another. Other advances include lane-departure technology, blind-spot detection, automatic emergency braking systems and cross-traffic alert systems that sound warnings when they detect another vehicle or pedestrian approaching from the side.
"The engineering of roads has gotten just tremendously better. We maybe can't solve the problem of that person getting into that car and being impaired, but we can mitigate the consequences," said Andrea Bill, a traffic safety research project manager at the Traffic Operations and Safety Laboratory at UW-Madison.
"We've done more things with better roads, more things with better vehicles. We've done more things with people having to understand the consequences of their actions. With all of that, though, I think we lead people into a false sense of security."
Wisconsin's drinking culture is well documented and has an infamous reputation.
This is a state where corner bars are revered, brew pubs have blossomed and drinks such as the brandy old fashioned and Spotted Cow have become state symbols. Beer fuels hundreds of festivals around the state each year, and cities such as Madison and Milwaukee are allowing beer gardens in public parks.
Grocery stores sport massive liquor departments and convenience stores hype their beer caves, while tailgating before a Green Bay Packers or Milwaukee Brewers game can turn thousands of parking spots into mini sports bars.
"Our kids' exposure to alcohol is high in our community because there's so many places where it's sold and so many places where it's consumed," said Maureen Busalacchi, executive director of the Wisconsin Alcohol Policy Project, founded in 2010 and based at the Medical College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee. "What kids learn is that mom and dad don't go anywhere where there's not alcohol in their hand. It's ingrained in our culture."
And that extends at this time of the year to northern Wisconsin, where snowmobiling is big business. There are thousands of miles of trails but some of the most popular pit stops are bars and restaurants. However, a drunken driving ticket on a snowmobile doesn't count against a regular motor vehicle license in Wisconsin. A driver could be ticketed for OWI on a boat or ATV or in a car, and they're all separate first offenses.
Nick Jarmusz, director of public affairs for AAA Wisconsin, is among those who would like to see the law changed to allow OWIs to count regardless of what vehicle is used.
"We're kind of tinkering around the margins but it's that cultural relationship between alcohol and any sort of heavy machinery you're piloting," Jarmusz said. "I think it could go a long way of kind of setting a precedent and laying a marker down that this is serious. If you do it once, it doesn't matter what vehicle you're behind the wheel of. An offense is an offense."
According to data from the Wisconsin Alcohol Policy Project, 64.4% of Wisconsinites drink alcohol, which ranks it third only behind New Hampshire (64.6%) and Washington, D.C. (68.7%). And when Wisconsin adults drink, they drink more often and have more alcohol than adults in other states. They drink an average of 2.6 standard drinks when they drink while only 37.9% of Wisconsin adults who binge drink think they put themselves at risk.
Excessive alcohol use is also responsible for one in five injuries and accounts for 5% of deaths in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Busalacchi, of the Wisconsin Alcohol Policy Project, said her organization's mission is not about abstinence. Instead it's about providing training, tools and technical assistance to municipalities, law enforcement, and public health and community groups that are working to reduce alcohol-related problems.
"It doesn't mean we don't have our beer and cheese curds. We're just talking about moderating it. Bring it back down so it's not so excessive," Busalacchi said. "In many ways Wisconsin is a common-sense state and it makes common sense to reel this back in. Nobody in these towns, I don't think anyone wants people to get harmed or injured or have a motor vehicle crash."
Busalacchi was among 18 members of a state-sponsored alcohol-prevention work group that met throughout 2021. The group, an offshoot of the Wisconsin State Council on Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse Prevention Committee, solicited advice from more than 30 people. They included health care professionals, law enforcement, academia, beer distributors, brewers, government officials and even tax revenue experts.
The end result was a report with 60 recommendations, but it remains unclear how many will be implemented. They include raising the price of alcohol to reduce youth consumption and binge drinking, reducing the density of alcohol outlets, increasing alcohol compliance checks and encouraging communities to take part in Place of Last Drink, a program that identifies where a person was last served alcohol before being cited by law enforcement.
Place of Last Drink is not limited to bars. Places can include festivals, restaurants, parks or other businesses that cater to those who drink. Those businesses or places that repeatedly find themselves on the list can first be counseled to educate their staff. If the problem persists and there are increased calls to police, among other issues, alcohol licenses could be jeopardized.
"When there's a preponderance of people that cite a place there's generally something going on there. So the first step is to make sure that data is returned to those people so they understand what's happening," Busalacchi said. "It can be really helpful to understand where it's happening in communities."
Other recommendations include mapping alcohol outlet density, keeping face-to-face interactions with customers if alcohol delivery is approved by state lawmakers and adopting sober server ordinances.
The group proposed eliminating alcohol sales at gas stations and increasing the alcohol tax, things legislators have been reluctant to do. In Wisconsin, according to the report, binge drinking has an annual economic cost of $3.9 billion, more than half of that attributed to lost productivity at work. Another $560 million is spent on criminal justice with $380 million on health care.
"Wisconsin has made many improvements in the alcohol environment, yet we can continue our efforts to create a safe and prosperous environment for all," the report concludes. "Enacting policies to prevent excessive use of alcohol is a cost-effective strategy and has many benefits to the community including creating safer neighborhoods, roads and downtowns while also reducing violence and cancer risk."
But while officials say a multifaceted approach is needed to address impaired driving, enforcement remains a key tool.
Jessica Quamme pulled over her first drunken driver in 2005 when, as an officer with the Shorewood Hills Police Department, she spotted a car speeding on University Avenue. When the car turned onto Whitney Way, it nearly rolled before pulling over for Quamme. It would be one of 125 drunken driving arrests she would make in three years with the small Dane County police department before joining the Middleton Police Department in 2008.
"I remember approaching the car. He had sprayed cologne, he was smoking a cigarette, chewing gum and I could tell something was off," Quamme recalled. "There were so many smells coming from the car. He just bombed the field sobriety tests, too. He was an easy arrest for my very first one."
Wisconsin law doesn't allow for sobriety checkpoints, but 26 police agencies across the state are part of drunken driving task forces that designate certain times in which officers, working overtime, focus on finding impaired drivers. The tasks forces, which Quamme has helped organize and staff for her department, are typically funded through state or federal grants. And while her department has not had an issue with finding officers to take part in task forces, some other departments in the state are short on sworn officers or may be focused on other crime. That means there may be fewer arrests, which can further skew the data.
Quamme is also one of 365 police officers in the state (the most in the country) certified as a drug recognition expert. They can help educate other officers on what to look for in drivers who appear impaired but not from alcohol. The officers can also be called in to assist when someone is pulled over. Their tool box includes blood pressure cuffs, thermometers and the ability to accurately check pupil size and heart rate, all of which can be affected by drug use, whether it's too much prescription medication or illegal drugs.
Suspects can also be taken to a hospital for a blood draw, and a roadside saliva test to detect drugs is being developed.
"I'd like to think that we as police are doing our jobs, but we can't catch them all and we know there are people getting away with it every night," Quamme said. "You just hope and pray they don't kill anyone on the way."
© 2022 The Wisconsin State Journal
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