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Enough is enough: Wisconsin lawmakers will try again to toughen the state’s drunk driving laws

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MADISON -- Wisconsin lawmakers who seek to toughen some of the nation's weakest drunken driving laws have proposed several bills for 2016, although disagreements remain over legislation targeting both repeat and first-time offenders.

Rep. Jim Ott

Rep. Jim Ott

"When you`ve got an average of 200 fatalities a year in Wisconsin related to drunk driving crashes, I don`t think that`s acceptable by anyone`s standards," Rep. Jim Ott, R-Mequon, said.

Ott has offered five bills, ranging from stiffer penalties for repeat offenders to requiring that first-time offenders appear in court.

The Legislature is also considering whether to revoke a person's drivers license for 10 years for a fifth-offense operating while intoxicated conviction.

Lawmakers have proposed closing a loophole in state law so people who are required to have an ignition interlock device in their vehicle would face criminal punishment if they get caught driving a vehicle without such a device. Right now, the offense is punishable by citation.

The Tavern League of Wisconsin, which lawmakers have blamed for blocking previous efforts, is neutral on the ignition interlock bill and hasn't announced a position on the revocation bill.

Ignition interlock device

Ignition interlock device

Matt Phillips of Stenger Government Relations, which represents the Tavern League, did not return multiple phone calls seeking comment Sunday.

"What they say publicly to me is that they are certainly in favor of stronger penalties for repeat OWI offenders," Ott said. "We're going to see how many of these bills they’re going to register in favor of."

Another bill circulating in the Legislature would turn a first-offense into a criminal misdemeanor. Wisconsin is currently the only state in the U.S. that treats it as a traffic violation.

Rep. Josh Zepnick, D-Milwaukee, said he backed both the ignition interlock and revocation bills but didn't support criminalizing first-offense OWI.

"Public opinion is strongly against it, unlike other legislation in which they`re strongly in favor of," Zepnick said.

Zepnick is a longtime supporter of tougher drunken-driving laws after his sister was killed by one in 1990. The lawmaker pleaded guilty to first-offense OWI himself in November, but said it has not changed his position on criminalizing the first offense.

Tavern League of Wisconsin

Tavern League of Wisconsin

"I’m living by the same laws that I’ve written and voted for myself and that I believe in personally and morally. I’m learning a tremendous lesson about it, and taking responsibility for my action," Zepnick said, adding that he would comment further about his own situation when he and his family get more comfortable with it.

First-offense OWI, while not resulting in a jail sentence, often results in more than $1,000 in court costs. The figures can go higher if the person is required to have an ignition interlock device installed in their vehicle, while their insurance rates may also go up.

Wisconsin averages about 200 deaths every year related to drunken-driving, Ott said.



  • Al Bundy

    EVERY 5 years Wisconsin debts the Drunk Driving laws and claims to “get tough” with REPEAT offenders but Wisconsin is the ONLY state were a FIRST offense is NOT a crime. The great people of Wisconsin like to drink and a by-product is driving after. If Wisconsin wants to get tough then first offense should be a crime with mandatory jail time.

  • Al Bundy

    {“GREENFIELD — Rep. Josh Zepnick (D-Milwaukee) was found guilty Wednesday, November 18th of first offense OWI.
    Josh Zepnick He received a six-month suspension of his license and will have an interlock ignition device on his vehicle for 12 months.”} I guess the laws do not apply to those that make them. Remember Brad Schimel and the State attorney General who got DUI’s?

  • Matthew Scerpella

    Ott is a liberal/statist masquerading as conservative. How dare he blame the Tavern league and trying to link some type of malicious intent to their organization. What does he have to say to all the people who make their living owning, working at, serving, advertising, and supplying Taverns. Ott is a member of the State Bar and is doing nothing more than trying to make more money for attorneys and all who stand to profit from the drunk driving industry. Criminalizing a first offense DUI? Criminalizing citizens? Next time he tries to ride his bike on my driveway and ask for my voting, Im calling the police.

    • Charles Hickman

      The Tavern League works in the interests of alcohol sellers, not the public. They have in the past opposed stronger drunk driving laws, including ignition interlock laws. Why? Because they would make customers reconsider buying another drink before driving. Every other state makes a first drunk driving offense a misdemeanor. Only Wisconsin holds out. Other states realize that drunk driving is a criminal activity that deserves to be criminalized.

  • Cheech

    Just treat them as harsh as you treat people driving while high on pot. oh wait, there’s no stories about people like that…or make them a felon for life for selling a little weed. Booze makes more money being legal, weed makes more money being illegal. Get it? You can’t industrialize weed because everyone would just grow it in their back 40.

  • Fred

    What will tougher laws do? Those who drink and drive will continue to do so. Do you really think all the offenders actually quit driving while their driving permit is suspended? Those who break the law will continue to do so no matter what, unless they are in jail. This is no different than the gun debate. Crimes are committed every day by people who should not be able to own a gun. Likewise, those who get busted for DUI will continue to drink and drive. Tougher laws will generate revenue, but it will do nothing to stop the problem.

  • Miller time

    Every 5 years we hear the same call to arms to get “Tough” on REPEAT Offenders!
    Yet first offense is NOT a crime.

  • Stephanie Jaskolski

    Eye opening.

    I need to stop drinking! Better decisions in my future? Probably not but it’s a good start.

    Black Creek, WI

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