Larson Report
NEWSLETTER

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A Capitol Update from State Senator Chris Larson

Dear Wisconsin Neighbor,

As the holiday season is fast approaching it is a great time to bring attention to the importance of using our shared roadways in a safe way. Unfortunately, Wisconsin remains one of the worst states for drinking and driving in the nation. Fortunately, this is something we can change if we have the political will. Too many lives have been needlessly shattered by people making the decision to drink too much before driving. I have shared my story many times and I've heard too many similar stories from families over the years.

Over the last nine years, I have consistently advocated for changing the culture around drinking and driving in Wisconsin and making our roads a safer place for all. We can be doing more to address this issue and I will keep fighting for consequences that teach drivers to drive sober and spread the word throughout the community that we are taking this threat seriously.

In addition to introducing legislation which I'll talk about below, this year I also partnered with TMJ4 for Project Drive Sober which brought legislators and stakeholders to the table to discuss solutions to this issue. I was proud to film a bi-partisan PSA with Representative Jim Ott encouraging folks to drive sober. Through their efforts and through the continued advocacy of neighbors like you, we've seen more legislation addressing drunk driving than any other session I've served and we have moved bills further in the process.

In this Larson Report, we will review where our drunk driving laws stand in Wisconsin and what we are working to do about it.  

   

In Service,

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Changing Our Culture: The Problem
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It is no secret that we have a problem in Wisconsin with drinking and driving. As of 2015, the last year for which we cumulative data, the Department of Transportation reported that 448,624 drivers had one OWI on their record and 131,597 drivers had a second conviction over their lifetime. That means that about 1 in every 13 Wisconsin residents have a conviction for a first offense OWI and 1 in every 44 Wisconsin residents reoffended. Experts estimate that first offense OWI offenders have driven 80 times under the influence before they are finally caught for a first offense. 

The fact is our current laws are inadequate and Wisconsin has some of the least serious OWI laws in the nation. Right now, a first offense OWI in the state of Wisconsin is not a criminal offense but rather a civil forfeiture, making this deadly behavior like a common traffic ticket. Wisconsin is the only state where this is the case. 

Also, ignition interlock devices are only required when a drunk driver refuses a sobriety test, is a repeat offender, or blows over a .15 blood alcohol content (BAC) for a first offense conviction. Ignition interlock devices reduce drinking and driving and should be required for all OWI convictions.

A person is only guilty of felony OWI in Wisconsin if it's their fifth conviction in ten years or fourth conviction in five years. This is allowing too many repeat offenders to escape serious consequences until it is way too late and can lead to very tragic consequences. We must take this problem more seriously here in Wisconsin.    

The Problem is Not Too Big - We Can Do Something 

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Earlier this year, I was proud to stand with Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD)Eliminate Drunk Driving - Education Foundation, and legislative colleagues to call for a serious change to Wisconsin's deadly drinking and driving culture. This is an issue that we can solve, it is not too big, and we owe to everyone who has been harmed by drunk driving in Wisconsin.

There must be real consequences for drinking and driving in Wisconsin. That is why I introduced Senate Bill 58 with Republican Representative Jim Ott requiring all OWI offenders (including the first offense) to install an interlock device. This will reduce recidivism and make our roads safer.

Because of our dedicated work, I was named Legislator of the Year by Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD).

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I am very disappointed that this bill, as well as a similar bill (Senate Bill 198) authored by Senator Andre Jacque, have not been brought up for a vote in the Senate.

Other OWI Legislation Introduced This Year 

  • Senate Bill 6Under this bill, a fifth or sixth OWI offense would result in a mandatory prison sentence of 18 months. I supported passage of this bill in the Senate and voted for it when it came up. This bill has not passed in the State Assembly.
  • Senate Bill 7Under this bill, a person who receives a citation for an OWI-related violation is required to appear in court to plead guilty, no contest, or not guilty to the charge. If the person fails to appear in court, the court is required to enter a default judgment against the person and impose the applicable penalties and a $300 surcharge for the person's failure to appear. Requiring all OWI offenders to appear in court is a step in the right direction in taking responsibility for their actions. This bill has passed out of the Judiciary Committee but has not been scheduled for a vote in the Senate.
  • Senate Bill 9This bill criminalizes first offense OWI and makes it a Class C Misdemeanor. I am a cosponsor of this bill because I believe that Wisconsin should not be the only state in the nation that does not have the disincentive of a criminal offense for a first OWI.  We have some of the worst rates of multiple offenses in terms of OWI. It is time we take the first offense seriously.

It is truly unfortunate that most of these bills will die in committee and never become law because it sends the message that Wisconsin is fine with the status quo in drunk driving. I am here to say that we are not fine with it, that we will keep up the fight, and that we will ensure that future generations will not suffer from the high cost of the epidemic of drunk driving in Wisconsin. 

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Usually, we like to use the Take Action section of the Larson Report to guide you on how to effectively advocate for changing state policy. For this Take Action, I'd like to remind everyone that you can take a hand in making sure our roads are a safe place for everyone.

The ability to enjoy a beverage responsibly is part of Wisconsin's heritage. That is not the issue. So, as you gear up to celebrate the upcoming holidays make sure that if you are going to drink, you have a plan to do so safely and responsibly. Make sure you have a designated driver assigned before you go out to the bar or money set aside for a taxi or Uber. Taking the time to think through how you will get home before you go out will ensure that you don't endanger yourself or our friends and neighbors. 

Also, many counties participate in the SafeRide Program that provides free rides home from many bars and restaurants.

So, take action this holiday season and make a plan to get home from the festivities safely. 

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