Monday, June 22, 2009

Up Front: Drunk Driving Legislation

This week's Up Front has three worthwhile features. First is the prospects for change in Wisconsin drunk driving laws. See the video here.

This is an interesting problem because law enforcement and public health are on one clear side but popular culture and economic interests are on the other. It is tough for any politician to challenge both popular culture and economic interests at the same time no matter how devastating the consequences of drunk driving. The two legislators, Rep. Jeff Stone, R-Greendale, and Rep. Josh Zepnick, D-Milwaukee, give a good perspective on the status of the legislation and the difficulties in passing it.

If you've not been reading it, you should look over the Journal Sentinel series on drunk driving and its consequences. I was disappointed that the series didn't win the JS a Pulitzer this year.

Questions: Is it a reflection of good democratic representation that our legislature is NOT passing this legislation? Assuming a popular culture that approves of excessive drinking and wants mild penalties for driving drunk, should democratically elected politicians support this public preference, even if the cost is several hundred often innocent victims killed per year?


  1. Saying that democratically elected politicians should not support heavier drinking restrictions due to a culture that approves excessive drinking would suggest a majority of people want looser drinking laws. I disagree. Although there are groups of people, such as bar owners that may lose business due to stricter laws, as well as individuals who may be fond of a good drink (or two, three, or eight…), it seems like more people are more concerned for the safety of lives rather than the opportunity for one night’s fun.

    On the other hand, there must be a good balance between heavy restrictions and too lenient of drinking laws. As the article, “Wasted in Wisconsin,” showed, Wisconsin has a drinking culture, and our drinking laws are much more lenient than other state’s laws as a result. For example, Wisconsin is the only state in which first time drunk driving is not considered to be a crime. While it does not seem too unreasonable to change this to be in line with other states, there are other things to consider. By imposing stricter drinking laws, costs for the state increase (i.e. court costs go up through more people pleading “not guilty,” leading to more trials and more people in need of district attorneys). All of these result in backing up the court systems even more. I think Wisconsin currently has a pretty good balance for its drinking laws of not being too lenient or too restrictive, especially considering that a first time offense does not result in jail time, but recurrent offenses become progressively worse, with a fifth time offense as a felony. - Sarah K.

  2. I was discussing the issue of drunk driving with my father on a road trip to Canada last week, and we determined that this is one of the most difficult issues politically. It is nearly impossible to truly stop or avoid drunk driving when a state has a drinking culture such as Wisconsin does. It is hard to actually stop someone from making a bad decision to drive after they have had a few. Legislation can be made against driving drunk, but that does not mean that people will follow it. With knowing that the drinking culture of Wisconsin influences the problem, many propose an increase in excise tax on alcohol such as there are on cigarettes. The only problem is that beer production is extremely important to the state of Wisconsin. From Miller to Leinies to New Glarus, beer is important to our economy.

    Knowing this, the question that must be raised is should the economy be jeopardized by increasing alcohol tax to lower drunk driving? Who even knows if this would actually decrease drunk driving....

    Working in the capitol thus far has shown be that policies aren't cut and dry, but that there are many implications with every decision made. What the best way is to combat drunk driving is beyond me.

    - Luke D.

  3. Clearly drunk driving is wrong, but the ethics of drunk driving is not the crux of the problem. The problem that is faced here is whether or not the state of Wisconsin can financially support these new laws. Yes, these new laws would give justice to victims of drunk driving, but there is no guarantee that these laws would actually reduce drunk driving in the state of Wisconsin.

    The main reason that that this topic is hitting a nerve with the general public is due to the emotional ties that drunk driving stirs up. Don’t get me wrong, I have personally been affected by drunk driving, and would encourage tougher laws on the issue. But these emotional ties need to be severed when looking at these laws, because this bill is not about the ethical and moral decisions surrounding drunk driving, it is only a fiscal decision: does the state of Wisconsin have enough money in the budget at the moment to pay for the changes that these tougher laws would enact? At this point in time I think that there is a clear answer. No.

    If the constituents do not want to pay for these changes, I believe that it is the representation’s job to portray this. These senators are elected to represent their district. If taxpayers do not desire this increase, then it is good democratic representation to not pass this legislation.

  4. Drinking and driving is not just a Wisconsin problem, this is a problem throughout the United States. Which is in contrast to our European counterparts. In Europe the drinking age is 16-18 depending on the country, but they rely on heavier restrictions on driving than in the US. In a lot of European countries you can lose your license after just one drunken driving offense, which is not a bad way to approach the issue of drinking and driving. If you think about it, when you are driving you are operating a 2500+ pound weapon and to throw alcohol into the equation makes the situation almost surely to end horribly.

    The main difference with the United States and Europe concerning drinking laws is public transportation. The United States has created a culture where a car is a practical necessity. Cars in the US are ubiquitous and it is almost impossible to get around without one (with the exception of major city dwellers). In Europe the driving age is 18-21 because public transportation is so accessible and convenient. A good public transportation system in this country could bypass the drunk driving laws controversy by creating an alternative to drinking and driving. Building a public transportation system may contribute to state spending, but it creates domestic jobs (one thing America desperately needs right now).

    To whether it is undemocratic to toughen drunk driving laws besides the fact that most Wisconsinites favor lax drinking laws, it isn't. I am going to take a page out of Edmund Burke's book on this one and say a representative has to do what he/she thinks is best for their state/country not necessarily what the constituents want. Our country has an indirect democracy so that public policy does not sway with the winds of public opinion. Policy makers must do what is best, not what is popular. In this day and age, when a lot of policy making is driven by reelection goals, it is rare to get a true delegate not just a representative of public opinion. Our Wisconsin law makers should make the tough choice to do what is best for Wisconsin and pass harsher penalties on drinking and driving.

    Jake V

  5. The way I see it is if you get caught drinking and driving for the first time you get a slap on the wrist. But once you get your license, you get with it a whole new load of responsibility. Let's face it, with the way the law is right now, people are going to continue to drink and drive until they end up in jail. I believe that it is a difficult time to pick up legislation on drunk driving, but the issue needs to be addressed very soon. You need to start acting like an adult when you get your license, and start making smart decisions. Smart decisions don't include a night of binge drinking followed by driving home. So many lives are taken by drunk drivers every year, and it's sad, because most of the time the victims were not drinking themselves. Wisconsin prides itself on being able to drink so much, and that doesn't have to change. Just don't get behind the wheel after a night out, it's as simple as that. And if you do, and you get caught, you will be punished. I don't think a tax on alcoholic beverages will change anything honestly, people are still going to drink. That tax is just to help the budget, not stop people from drinking like some people might believe. I understand that it's a difficult issue but many people are too worried about the reputation of Wisconsin as a huge drinking state, and like I said before that doesn't have to change. The only thing that needs to change is the decision you make after a night of fun to get behind the wheel or not. It's time to start being responsible.

  6. I agree with Elle. Changing legislation will no way eliminate drunk driving and it's end results obviously remain to be seen. Fortunately, in a republic, it is not up to the popular vote of the people whether or not to loosen or tighten up drunk driving penalties, it is the responsibility of the elected representatives to make a responsible decision. That decision should not be decided by emotion, but by statistics. If tighter legislation would end up saving lives, it should be passed.

    But as Elle said, unfortunately the result of more lives saved will not be determined by this legislation alone, it will be by an attitude and lifestyle change for many to simply NOT drive intoxicated. Wisconsin irrefutably does pride itself on its beer production and consumption, and this attitude is not likely to waver in any short amount of time.

    I believe therefore, that legislation alone is not the answer, rather only part of it. Drunk driving and its consequences will have to be taught more by parents and teachers more so than it has been in the past, not by drivers ED alone if this change in attitude is to take place. Clearly this is a delicate issue with no easier answer. But this greater education and knowledge will have to be paired with tighter legislation if drunk driving accidents and deaths are to be reduced in Wisconsin and other states.

    -Sam E

  7. Through working in the capitol and having the priviledge of viewing proposed bills before they are introduced to the public, I could not tell you how many of these types of bills proposing stricter drunk driving related laws have passed through my office. I agree with many of the other bloggers. It is not that we as Wisconsinites as a whole do not see the importance of cracking down on laws for drunking driving in order to prevent the loss of many innocent lives, it is rather the implications of what those laws may bring in the future. It is a huge concern of how these laws would affect brewing/distributing companies that provide many jobs to this state, how they would affect economies of cities such as Madison, and many other concerns.

    Personally, I would love to see stricter drunk driving laws. I believe that it is completely irresponsible to drink/drive and that the risk of "not being that bad" is just not worth the possible consequences...possibly of even ending the life of someone close to you in worst case scenarios. But as a student that has learned to look at the ripple effect of making just one decision, I know that it is not that cut and dry. Ultimately, I do not think that the state can financially handle the decision to crack down on these laws right at this moment. But I do think that sometime in the next few months, the state and legislators may be able to figure out how to financially back the passing of laws such as these. And I think it is important that in the future, the state of Wisconsin take the hints from other states and crack down on these laws. Just as we must look to other states to make sure our education standards are up to par, it is important that these laws match-up as closely as possible with other states, regardless if this would support the democratic process by supporting popular culture. As a student at the UW, I know we are well-known throughout the country for our binge-drinking but do we have to be known for our loose laws with drunk driving? Again, I do not think anyone is naive enough to believe that these laws are going to magically stop drunk driving in this state, but it is important to show citizens that it is NOT acceptable and whether or not people choose to participate in these types of behavior is their decision to make but that they will be held accountable for those actions. But it will be interesting to see how these deliberations play out in the near future regardless...

  8. I think that although it is the responsibility of democratically elected politicians to represent the preferences of their constituents, it is also their responsibility to act with the best interest of their constituents and the public as a whole in mind. Therefore, politicians SHOULD pass drunk driving legislation.

    I agree with Jessica C. that it would be too difficult financially for Wisconsin to enforce new drunk driving laws now, but these reforms should definitely be raised next session when hopefully the state is in a better financial position and can afford them. Jake V. raised an interesting point about providing better public transportation, but I think this would be unrealistic and extremely costly for a state like Wisconsin where parts are pretty rural and communities are spread out.

    Instead of passing new laws at this time, judges need to crack down and enforce the laws already in place. It seemed like judges were not giving even the most severe cases appropriate sentences, prompting one offender to even admit that he didn't take the law seriously and as much of a threat because his sentence was "too easy." A stronger message needs to be sent so people will take drunk driving laws more seriously. Although cracking down means more money spent on trying offenders, keeping them in jail, and giving them proper treatment, hopefully this tough enforcement will cause people to be more aware of the consequences of their actions and make the choice to not drive drunk, thereby saving money because there will be less money sent on paying damages, crash clean up, health care, etc.

    If tavern owners don't want stricter laws against drunk driving, then why don't they take more responsibility and be more aware of customers getting behind the wheel after drinking and prevent them from doing so? This will keep more people alive and able to be in bars and prevent them from being turned off from drinking by the sobering experience of being personally impacted by drunk driving incidents. Also, this will allow people to spend their time drinking in bars instead of being legally prohibited from doing so by court orders and jail time. Since, like Elle M. and the articles noted, Wisconsin does pride itself on its drinking abilities and drinking is very ingrained in its culture, maybe politicians should listen to economists and increase the tax on alcoholic beverages, which the tavern league has prevented from happening since 1969. Clearly this isn't really going to deter people from drinking.

    In regards to my notion that Wisconsin shouldn't enforce new drunk driving laws now, they should challenge the public to prove that new laws don't need to be proposed at all and that they are perfectly capable of upholding these laws. The public should take the opportunity to show that people from Wisconsin shouldn't be typecasted and prove that yes we are heavy drinkers and we pride ourself on our drinking abilities, but we do it right and in law-abiding manners.

    Furthermore, if politicians listened to the public's opinion on all issues, then why isn't prop 8 revoked in California and a softer stance taken on marijuana?....just kidding!...kinda...:)

  9. In responding to Jake's point, I don't believe that public transportation is the solution. First, public transportation in many cities ends before bar time leaving inebriated citizens with the same problem. Also, I think that in Wisconsin, moreso than in other states, many of the people driving drunk are in rural areas that wouldn't have access to public transportation anyways. The problem lies in the culture of drinking, and the inability of lawmakers to pass tougher legislation shows just how firmly entrenched drinking is in our society.

    I found an article from 2008 that shows the top 5 states for drinking and driving are all from the Midwest (the others were Minnesota, Nebraska, North Dakota, and South Dakota). I also saw that Wisconsin was the only state with more than 25% of all drivers having driven drunk at least once in the last year. WI also has one of the lowest beer taxes in the country, no doubt a reflection of the strong lobbying groups in the state.

    I believe that increasing the beer tax would be a means of solving some of the problems. Jessica stated earlier that an increase in drinking and driving enforcement would be a financial burden in an already difficult economy. However, if the state were increase the tax on beer, they could steer (no pun intended) that money specifically to programs aimed at reducing drunk driving. The fact that we are the NUMBER ONE state for drinking and driving should be alarming to all lawmakers. Right now, economic interests and popular culture would win out over public safety and well-being. The argument that taverns would lose business is similar to that of banning smoking in bars. If anything is to be done, the line must be drawn that these lienient drinking and driving laws are a threat to public health and therfore they must be tightened.

    -Paul L.

  10. I think that one reason Wisconsin drinks and drives so much is that the drinks are so cheap. I remember of few summers back when Madhatter's closed, and partly due to the FAC. Church was shut down forpart of the summerthe following year. It just goes toshow that Wisconsin loves their drinks? But do they? When asked, do you think someone would rather have their loved one persih in an accident or have a beer? Actually it would not be a beer.
    I believe if they were taxed more, like cigarettes, then it would not be as usable. The health of the state should not be up for grabs.


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