Weak lawmaking leads to irresponsible drunk driving rates

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Wisconsin’s drinking culture calls for stricter OWI enforcement

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Weak lawmaking leads to irresponsible drunk driving rates

Last year, 190 people were killed in alcohol-related crashes, up 14.5 percent since 2014.

Last year, 190 people were killed in alcohol-related crashes, up 14.5 percent since 2014.

Photo by Submitted

Last year, 190 people were killed in alcohol-related crashes, up 14.5 percent since 2014.

Photo by Submitted

Photo by Submitted

Last year, 190 people were killed in alcohol-related crashes, up 14.5 percent since 2014.

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As a student at UW-Eau Claire, it came as little surprise that Wisconsin is ranked third in most bars per capita. Eau Claire’s own Water Street holds a whopping nine bars, quite impressive for a mile-long stretch of road.

I often see Facebook friends boasting and sharing articles like “Twelve of 20 drunkest american cities are in Wisconsin” or my personal favorite: “Wisconsin’s bar-to-grocery store ratio puts the rest of the country to shame.”

While these articles are designed to make Wisconsinites feel pride, they are merely a diversion from the less praiseworthy headlines that come along with the state’s drinking culture, such as “Wisconsin’s blind eye on drunk driving” or “Wisconsin Leads U.S. in Drunk Drivers.”

I’m sure everyone has heard horror stories growing up or perhaps witnessed firsthand the toll a drunk driver can take on a family’s life. Many of us vow we will never get behind the wheel, promise to find a sober ride and assure our mothers we’ll make it home safe each night.

But last year, 190 people lost their lives in alcohol-related crashes, according to the Wisconsin Department of Transportation. The number of deaths escalated 14.5 percent from 2014.

Wisconsin has one of the highest rates of drunk driving in the country, yet we see more headlines about having more bars than grocery stores than we do headlines on Wisconsin’s high binge drinking rates and an unhealthy drinking culture.

This mentality is not improving the state, nor is it saving innocent lives. If we continue down this path we’ll have a bunch of booming bar businesses, busy police officers and nervous mothers at home wondering if their son or daughter is going to make it home.

It’s time to start pushing for stricter drunk-driving enforcement.

According to Mothers Against Drunk Driving, Wisconsin is the only state in the nation where the first drunk driving offense isn’t a crime, just a traffic ticket. The fine is $150-300 and no jail time is required.

The neighboring state of Minnesota, however, paints a different picture of drunk driving. A first offense DWI is criminal and considered a misdemeanor, punishable by up to $1,000 in fines and/or 90 days in jail according to the Minnesota Department of Public Safety (MN-DPS).

While Minnesota’s charges may seem extreme in contrast, the trend of deaths per year due to drunk driving is dramatically different.

According to the MN-DPS, fatalities have decreased by 8 percent in the last five years resulting in a mere 95 drunk driving-related fatalities in 2015, half that of Wisconsin. This clearly indicates an increase in DWI penalties can save more than just a few innocent lives.

Drunk driving citations shouldn’t be treated like speeding tickets. If the punishment isn’t harsh enough, the chance of re-offending increases and the lesson isn’t learned until it’s too late.

It’s OK to boast about the number of Wisconsin bars in comparison to other states and be proud of the state’s unique culture, but make sure to remember the problems that come along with the title.

Just because drinking is part of the culture doesn’t mean the laws should be lenient toward driving under the influence. Wisconsin can be a state that appreciates drinking, however residents need to be doing so in a responsible manner and not getting behind the wheel when they’re intoxicated.

Drunk driving needs to be treated as a criminal offense, not “just a ticket.” Reach out to your local legislators and push them to pursue greater punishment for first offenders.

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