MADISON — A bipartisan set of bills before the state Legislature that would crack down on drunken driving is getting a mixed response — including from groups whose goal is to reduce impaired driving.
The six bills introduced Monday would increase penalties for repeat drunk drivers and for first-time offenders caught with a high blood-alcohol content, and make a third offense a felony rather than a misdemeanor.
One bill would set mandatory minimum sentences for drunk drivers who injure or kill someone. Another would allow authorities to seize a vehicle used by a person caught driving drunk a third or subsequent time.
“What we want to do is get a discussion started about how much tolerance we have for drunk driving,” said Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, the lead sponsor on all six of the bills.
But a similar set of bills introduced in the last session failed to pass after fiscal estimates said they would cost tens of millions of dollars to implement.
Top Republicans who run the Legislature appeared cool to the idea of enacting more harsh penalties. And advocacy groups said the measures fail to incorporate known deterrents, such as police checkpoints.
“Representative (Jim) Ott and Senator Darling have offered up good ideas, and I commend them for the work they’re doing on this issue,” Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, said in an email Tuesday. “I’d like to take a closer look at the bills and the fiscal estimates to see if spending hundreds of millions of dollars is the best way to prevent people from driving drunk.”
The package also received a lukewarm reception from Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau.
“From a leadership perspective, there are senators with varying thoughts on this issue as some believe the stiffer penalties passed in 2009 need to be evaluated,” Fitzgerald spokesman Tom Evenson said in an email. “Senator Fitzgerald looks forward to having an open discussion with legislators on a course of action that is best to deter drunk driving and repeat offenses.”
In 2009, the Legislature criminalized first offenses if there is a child under 16 in the vehicle and required ignition interlock devices for repeat drunk drivers or those caught with high blood-alcohol levels. The state also boosted penalties for repeat offenders.
But Sen. Tim Carpenter of Milwaukee, one of the Democratic co-sponsors on Darling’s bills, said his constituents believe not enough has been done.
“They realize it’s a disease, but we’ve got to protect the public,” Carpenter said. “People are very concerned. They’re extremely frustrated that the Legislature in not moving forward.”
Nina Emerson, director of the UW-Madison Resource Center on Impaired Driving, countered that boosting penalties is more expensive and less effective than other measures, such as sobriety checkpoints, which are currently banned in Wisconsin.
“What people need is to have the sense of apprehension,” she said. “They have to believe that there’s a good chance they will be apprehended if they drive drunk.”
Frank Harris, state legislative affairs manager for the national Mothers Against Drunk Driving, agreed. Harris said the bills lack other proven solutions, such as requiring all drunk drivers to install ignition interlock devices, which prevent a vehicle from starting when the driver is drunk.
His group favors requiring the devices for everyone caught driving with a blood-alcohol concentration at the legal limit of 0.08 or higher. In Wisconsin, such devices are required for first-time offenders caught with a 0.15 blood-alcohol level, those convicted of repeat offenses and anyone who refuses to take a chemical test.
“Wisconsin has limited state resources, and it should use those wisely,” he said. “This is about stopping drunken driving in smart way.”
Carpenter said he’s open to sobriety checkpoints that would operate on days when drunk drivers are likely to be on the road, such as St. Patrick’s Day or New Year’s Eve. But he said many lawmakers remain concerned that such strategies are too disruptive to other drivers.
“In order to get that passed,” Carpenter said, “you may need to ease into it.”
Scott Stenger, a lobbyist for the Tavern League of Wisconsin, said his group has not taken a position on the bills yet.
“We want to work with authors of the bill to try to figure out, what is the goal? What is the Legislature trying to do?” Stenger said, adding that alcohol-related crashes, injuries and fatalities all have decreased in Wisconsin in recent years.
“Maybe there are other ideas that need to be addressed rather than these bills,” Stenger said.