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Peterson: 3 strikes and you walk

Gary Peterson

Two recent articles in the Eau Claire Leader Telegram detailed the arrests of two men for repeat operating while intoxicated: one for fifth offense, the other for sixth. Incredibly, both were also charged with failure to install court-ordered ignition interlock devices (IID), one of the few proven devices to stop repeat-OWI offenders from again driving drunk.

How can this be happening? Don't we have laws to keep dangerous drunks off our highways? I was amazed to read on the Wisconsin DOT website that 9,500 people were driving with five or more OWI convictions, and that nearly half of the IIDs ordered by courts were never installed.

Do we really allow almost 10,000 "dedicated drunks" with five OWI convictions to keep driving — nearly half without the IIDs as ordered by a judge? Are our drunken-driving laws and enforcement really that lax?

Well, yes, they are. Wisconsin is the only state in the nation where first-offense OWI is merely a civil citation like a speeding ticket. The first OWI conviction only triggers a slap on the wrist consisting of a fine, a few points lost from the driver's license and sometimes an order to install an IID.

Then it's back into the driver's seat. Not until the fourth OWI conviction does drunken driving become a criminal felony.

The results of our incredibly lenient drunken-driving laws are borne out on our highways. The statistics are jaw-dropping:

• 2,577 people were killed by drunk drivers in Wisconsin from 2003-12.

• In 2015, alcohol was a contributing factor in 190 traffic deaths.

• 70 percent of those 190 deaths were caused by drunk drivers with multiple OWI convictions.

These grim statistics make Wisconsin the fourth most dangerous state in the nation for drunken driving, according to carinsurancecomparison.com.

What's wrong with this picture? And can we change it? Other states have, as have several other countries, most notably Sweden.

Mirroring Wisconsin, Sweden had a hard-drinking culture and similar grim highway-death statistics. But in 1994, they took bold strokes to turn the narrative around. They lowered the blood-alcohol content threshold for OWI and set a draconian fine structure based on the driver's income. They set mandatory jail time for the first serious OWI conviction.

The former little Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse (AODA) assessment requirement became a multi-day "boot-camp" course in alcohol abatement taught by professionals to nip the problem in the bud.

Finally, to keep a dangerous drunk out of the driver's seat, they allowed confiscating a repeater's car and selling it. When Sweden's vehicle-confiscation law was instituted in 1994, many Saabs and Volvos went to the auction block until drinkers got the message.

Has the Swedish experiment with tough laws worked? Statistics overwhelmingly show it has. Today, of all fatal highway accidents in Sweden, only 3.3 percent of the drivers were legally drunk. In the U.S., 10 times that — 38.6 percent were driving drunk when someone was killed.

Understandably, with their tough penalties for first-offense OWI, Sweden's arrest rate for second- and third-offense OWI is near zero. Wisconsin's rate is off the charts, with 52,000 Wisconsin drivers convicted of three OWIs.

Wisconsin's drunken-driving statute, 346.63, has 10 levels of increasing penalties for 10 levels of OWI convictions. If the penalties in 346.63 really stopped repeat drunken driving, we wouldn't need 10 levels. Sweden's law stops repeat drunken driving in only three levels.

A possible plan for Wisconsin — modeled after Sweden's — to reduce our 10 levels to three may stop the carnage. Call it "Three Strikes and You Walk:"

Strike 1

The first OWI conviction would be a criminal misdemeanor before a judge who would order not only the usual fines and license suspensions, but also mandate a deadly serious AODA course like Sweden's alcoholic's boot camp. He could also order an IID installed.

To assure compliance, the installation would be overseen by the arresting agency, not the driver. More importantly, the clock would start ticking.

Strike 2

If the driver went OWI-free for a prescribed period, the judge could expunge the misdemeanor and clear the driver's record. But if a second OWI occurred within that period, the judge would have a wide range of punitive options to remind the two-time drunk that the clock was ticking. There would no more second chances.

One option might be to suspend the drunk's license for a good long time, say until the Vikings win a Super Bowl.

Strike 3

On the third OWI conviction, the hammer would fall, triggering an automatic felony charge, and seizure of the vehicle by the DMV as a dangerous weapon in the hands of a felon. The car would be sold and the dangerous-driver's garage would be vacant.

If he bought a second car, the IID would have to be installed on that car and the driver would be placed on permanent "Strike 2" status. That means any subsequent OWI conviction would again constitute Strike Three and trigger the sale of that car.

Proceeds from vehicle sales might be split three ways:

• First, any lien remaining on the car from a lending institution would be paid in full.

• Second, the state could use the money to hire AODA specialists, trained in alcohol-addiction treatment. Those specialists could institute serious evidence-based treatment programs aimed squarely at rehabilitation that other states have found so effective in stopping the cycle of repeat-OWI driving.

• Lastly, the Legislature could apportion an annual grant to the Wisconsin Tavern League to develop and implement evidence-based programs to curb drunken driving. This group has enough insight and experience with the problem to buy in and be part of the solution to help solve this perennial problem that gives their industry a black eye.

The Swedish drunken-driving law works for them, but lowering Wisconsin's OWI blood-alcohol-content threshold from .08 is probably neither politically feasible nor practically necessary to solve Wisconsin's problem. The librarian who gets stopped for 0.001 BAC over the limit because she had one extra pinot noir at her book-club meeting is not the problem. People are killed by the repeat offender driving with two or three times the legal BAC.

With political will and courage in Madison, we could enact a Wisconsin version of the other important concepts of the Swedish experiment. Our shameful statistics cry out for tough legislation to end our repeat-OWI driving craziness.

The key takeaway is stark and obvious: As long as the alcohol-impaired person gets to decide whether to drive drunk or not as he is stumbling toward his car, nothing will change. And it's uncertain if bigger fines, license suspensions, jail time or other timeworn enforcement methods will fix that.

To change the equation, society must decide whether a habitual drunk drives or not — by enacting a serious confiscation law preventing access to a car by an alcohol-impaired person.

I grieved when a local man lost his wife, a vibrant grade-school teacher and mother, when a five-OWI drunk ran a stop sign and T-boned her car. But when a six-OWI drunk rear-ended the car of a Rice Lake family at a stop sign, killing the two little daughters in the back seat and paralyzing their little friend, I screamed "Enough!"

The lenient deadliness of 346.63 cannot continue.

Citizens, ask your senator and assemblyman if they support tough laws making the first OWI a criminal offense — as every other state does — and confiscating a vehicle if necessary to save lives.

And don't take "no" for an answer.

Gary Peterson, a retired respiratory therapist, now spends his extra time building and restoring wooden canoes in a shop at his home in Rice Lake, Wis.

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