Wis. Legislature passes drunken driving bill

AP News
Posted: Dec 16, 2009 6:57 PM

On the day state lawmakers overwhelmingly passed drunken driving reform that backers called the most significant change in Wisconsin history, Judy Jenkins stayed at home.

Jenkins, whose pregnant daughter and 10-year-old granddaughter were killed by a repeat drunken driver last year, has been a mainstay in the capital pushing for tougher laws. But she couldn't bring herself to be there to watch the bill pass Wednesday.

"It's really not substantive," she said in a phone interview from her Mequon home. "How is it making changes on the road? Is it making our streets safer?"

Lawmakers passed the bill in reaction to public pressure and an outcry over high drunken driving rates and Wisconsin's weak laws when compared to other states.

But the proposal, which takes effect July 1, doesn't include two of the toughest changes that advocates wanted: making all first offenses a crime and legalizing roadside sobriety checkpoints.

Under the bill that passed, a first offense would be a misdemeanor if a child under age 16 is in the car. However, Wisconsin would remain the only state in the country where all other first offenses are treated like traffic offenses, not crimes.

It would make driving drunk a felony on a fourth offense instead of a fifth if it occurs within five years of the previous offense.

The measure also would require ignition interlock devices for all repeat offenders and for first-time offenders who have a blood alcohol level of more than .15 percent, nearly double the legal limit of .08.

Gov. Jim Doyle said he will sign it.

"It's not everything everybody wanted or everything I wanted, but this is a bill that moves it a long way," he said.

About 41 percent of Wisconsin's traffic deaths in 2008 were alcohol-related, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, higher than the national average of 37 percent. Last year 208 people died in Wisconsin in crashes involving a driver with a blood-alcohol content of at least .08.

Passage of Wednesday's bill was delayed while lawmakers worked on reaching a compromise on how to pay for increased prison, probation, treatment and other costs.

The Democratic co-sponsors _ Rep. Tony Staskunas, D-West Allis, and Sen. Jim Sullivan, D-Wauwatosa _ ultimately agreed to increase fees on convicted criminals from $20 to $163. The bill would also raise the fee from $60 to $200 for drunken drivers wanting to get their license reinstated after it's been suspended or revoked.

The roughly $15 million a year raised would go toward higher costs related to more people being sent to prison and put on probation and ordered to additional treatment.