Imagine that you’re driving in beautiful Wisconsin and a car rear ends you because the driver is drunk. There’s no physical damage to either of you, but your car is wrecked! This is the driver’s first time ever driving drunk (not that it should matter, but it does in Wisconsin apparently). What kind of punishment do you think the driver will get?
A. Criminal charges
B. Jail time
C. Traffic ticket
Are you surprised that there’s no “All of the Above” option? If you answered A or B, you’re wrong. A first-time drunk driver in Wisconsin will NOT get criminal charges or jail time! They’ll just receive a simple civil traffic citation. As a traffic school, we think that this is a lazy and improper response to drunk driving. Even worse, these very easy consequences also go for repeated OWI offenders.
Wisconsin is the only state that doesn’t… what?!
Wisconsin is the only state of all 50 states in the U.S. that doesn’t give criminal charges to first-time drunk drivers. Maybe this is why they also have many repeated drunk drivers. The Wisconsin Department of Transportation (WISDOT) reports that in 2015 one person on average was killed or injured in an alcohol-related traffic incident every 2.9 hours.
Consequences for first-time Wisconsin drunk drivers
- A traffic violation fine between $150 and $300
- An OWI surcharge of $435
- A driver’s license suspension between 6 and 9 months
- An assessment of alcohol and drug usage
- An ignition interlock device (IID), depending on your BAC level
The only time an OWI offense would be treated as a misdemeanor is if there’s a child under the age of 16 present in the car during the incident.
What is an IID?
An IID is an Ignition Interlock Device that attaches to a car’s ignition. It measures the amount of alcohol present in your body. Think of it as a breathalyzer for your car. But an IID is attached to a car’s ignition so that if there happens to be any alcohol in your body, then you can’t start the car to drive anywhere. In Wisconsin, first-time drunk driving offenders don’t have to have this unless their BAC level is 0.15% or higher even though the legal BAC level is 0.08%.
Wisconsin OWI laws are too lax
In every other state, once a driver is convicted of drunk driving for the first time, they are taken to jail. However, Wisconsin treats its drunk drivers very differently by issuing a simple civil traffic citation. A fine and a short-term license suspension are the only punishments that they receive.
The state believes that if they don’t impose criminal charges the first time, then these individuals will educate themselves and change their bad driving habits. However, there’s really nothing on the list of consequences that encourages them to educate themselves on the dangers of driving drunk in order to change their behavior. We think that this is why there are many repeated OWI offenders in Wisconsin.
We want change!
Some of the changes that we’d like to see in the current OWI laws include the following:
What’s being done?
A group dedicated to drunk driving in Wisconsin called Eliminate Drunk Driving Inc. is actively trying to push changes to the lax OWI laws. A couple of their solutions is to give criminal charges against first-time offenders as well as assigning IIDs to ALL offenders.
Republican legislators Rep. Jim Ott and Sen. Alberta Darling have been trying to make first-offense OWI a crime for the last near decade. Their continuing efforts, however, keep getting bogged down by the lobby group Tavern League of Wisconsin and its affiliates.
Both legislators working on the bill have included making first-offense OWI a crime and imposing harsher penalties on repeat 5th/6th-time offenders by increasing the current 6-month minimum sentence in jail to 18 months.