Desire to criminalize first-time DUI hits roadblocks

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by Diane Moca

MILWAUKEE -- Seeing the twisted wreckage of a drunk driving crash only tells part of the story; the rest of the destruction isn't as easy to see, because the shattered lives of survivors who must bury a victim are behind the gory scenes that are cleaned up in hours or days.

"I'm not a victim or survivor, but I've met hundreds who are. You listen to them, and you see the pain they've gone through," described John Vose, public policy chair for Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) Wisconsin.

The pain is exacerbated by the frustration that a first DUI is only punishable by a traffic ticket in Wisconsin, though Vose says first offenders cause more than half of all drunk driving crashes, injuries and deaths.

"I run into a lot of sheriffs nationwide, and when this issue comes up and they find out Wisconsin is the only state in the nation that doesn't criminalize the first offense of drunk driving, they are astonished!" declared Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke.

Sheriff Clarke says that's why Wisconsin has more people killed in drunk driving crashes per capita than any other state, and why he wants lawmakers to criminalize all drunk driving and to legislate mandatory minimum sentences.

"They're not sending them to prison, on even the 4th, 5th or 6th. They're not going to prison. They're getting 30, 60, 90 days in jail. That's not enough on your 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th offense!" insisted Clarke.

Yet no legislation is pending to accomplish either of the sheriff's top goals, and while he blames the powerful lobby of the tavern league, others say intoxication is too ingrained in brew city and beyond.

"We have a strong drinking culture, and there doesn't seem to be strong consequences," noted State Senator Chris Larson, (D-7th District), who was in high school when a drunk driver killed his friend.

"The tragedy of realizing something could've been done to prevent this, if we had stronger drunk driving legislation..." reflected Sen. Larson.

Now he's sponsoring a bill mandating all first-time offenders install ignition interlocks, devices that only allow a car to run if a sober driver breathes into it.

Since last year, those devices have been required for all repeat offenders.

"They reduce fatalities in states that had them the longest, from 35 to 45%," indicated Vose.

But the sheriff wants more, like passing a new bill to legalize sobriety checkpoints.

While he admits drunk driving arrests are down three straight years in Milwaukee County, Sheriff Clarke's deputies still arrest more than 1300 drunk drivers a year on average.

"It's like shooting fish in a barrel," commented Clarke.

MADD proudly declares drunk driving fatalities have been cut in half since it formed in 1980, but the group won't be happy until it eliminates all drunk driving.

"That's why mothers against drunk driving was initially founded... (and) it actually is (realistic), but the solution is a technological one," added Vose.

That technology would prevent any car from starting if the driver is drunk, for instance, by testing the air inside or by detecting blood-alcohol through the driver's palms when he or she gripped the steering wheel.

MADD is working with the auto industry to develop this technology and hopes for it to be viable within five to 10 years.

But like seat belts and air bags, MADD realizes it will have to overcome political roadblocks to get the technology standard in every vehicle, as air bags and seat belts are now.

If you've got an issue you'd like us to investigate, please send an email to dmoca@cbs58.com.

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