Wisconsin is known for having a strong drinking culture. But the culture comes with a negative label: being one of the worst states for drinking and driving.
There is some good news for the local area, however.
Data from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics shows a sharp decrease in the number of alcohol-related crashes since 2010 in Sauk, Juneau and Columbia counties. The number of total operating while intoxicated arrests has decreased in all three counties over the last five years.
Sauk County State Trooper Joshua Torth is one who has noticed the decrease in arrests for alcohol OWIs.
“We’re still seeing it,” he said. “But it’s not as potent as it used to be.”
In the case of a first offense, an OWI in which an ancillary crime isn’t involved is considered a civil forfeiture and after being arrested, the driver can be released to a responsible party.
Some tougher OWI laws have been enacted, but mainly focus on those with multiple offenses and the installation of ignition interlock devices, which check a driver for alcohol before allowing them to start a vehicle. Part of the decrease can be attributed to organizations such as the SAFERIDE program in Wisconsin Dells or Bar Buddies in Sauk Prairie, Baraboo, Lodi and Reedsburg.
From a first responder’s point of view, it’s frustrating to pull someone over who is under the influence of alcohol or to see an accident where alcohol is involved, Troth said.
“That’s completely something that’s human error that’s preventable at 100 percent,” he said. “That’s not somebody making them drive. They are choosing to do that. They are putting everybody at risk at that point.”
State Trooper Eric Lloyd, who is assigned to the Tomah post and serves the Juneau County area, said officers are trained to spot intoxicated drivers, which starts before a vehicle is pulled over.
“We look for unusual behavior,” he said. “Is the vehicle all over the roadway? Is it going up and down in speed, is it driving faster than usual? We take those observations and upon stopping the vehicle for whatever reason, we then continue our investigation and that continues with the contact of that person.”
Determining if a person is intoxicated comes in the investigation phase, when officers talk to the person, examine certain behaviors and conduct a standardized field sobriety test and possibly a preliminary breath test.
“Most of them will tell you ‘Hey, I had a couple of beers like three hours ago,’” Troth said. “If it’s intoxicants, you also have the odor of the intoxicant. If you’re smelling it that goes down to a whole different level.”
Troth called an alcohol-involved accident “controlled chaos.”
“There’s a lot going on in a crash scene usually simultaneously,” Troth said. “Usually you have one trooper dealing with the crash, one dealing with traffic direction, another one trying to help get a tow truck en route and help with EMS and another one starting to write the crash as far as the investigation portion goes.”
With a lot of tourists in the area, Lloyd said he sees a number of people with a first-offense OWI, especially during extended times away from work like Fourth of July, Labor Day and New Year’s.
“You’ve got the Dells, you’ve got Castle Rock,” Lloyd said. “People come up here and they have a good time and sometimes they don’t make the responsible choices when they are on their vacation having a good time.”
In Wisconsin, a first OWI is a civil forfeiture, not a criminal offense.
“You’re still being charged with operating while intoxicated,” Troth said. “But we have the ability to release you to a responsible party instead of having you go through the criminal process of getting booked into the jail.”
Fines can range from $150 to $1,000 for a first-offense OWI and a driver’s license can be suspended for six to nine months. Sauk County District Attorney Kevin Calkins said court costs, attorney fees, citations and insurance increases can add up, even for a first-offense OWI.
“The cheapest ticket for that is like $700,” Calkins said. “It’s a pretty steep penalty.”
If drunken driving involves a crash where injury or fatality occurs, criminal and homicide charges can be pursued. If a child 16 or younger is in the vehicle, it’s considered a misdemeanor for the first offense and a criminal offense for the third offense.
At that point, “it’s no longer being released to a responsible party, now we’re going to jail,” Troth said.
Baraboo Chief of Police Mark Schauf said the state needs to change the public’s mindset about drinking and driving and the extent that alcohol causes impairment. Despite county rates dropping, the city has seen an increase in the number of OWI arrests.
“We’re the only state that first-offense is still a non-criminal offense,” he said. “We have to change the thought where it’s OK to do. People know it’s not OK to do, yet they will go to the retirement party after work or something simple and not realize how alcohol is impacting them and get behind the wheel to drive home.”
Toughening up laws
Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-Middleton, said the OWI laws, “could be toughened up a bit more” but said it’s a challenge to match the penalties to the crime.
“If you flat out make (first offense) a criminal offense, I don’t know if there is enough flexibility built into it,” Erpenbach said. “If someone is 0.00001 above the legal limit should that be a criminal penalty? There’s a lot of debate back and forth in that particular issue.”
In 2015, a bill was proposed to make a first-offense OWI a Class C misdemeanor with a $500 fine and 30 days imprisonment. The bill was rejected by the state Senate.
The Legislature mainly has focused on stricter laws for repeat offenders. According to the DOT website, Wisconsin Act 100 changed laws for a fourth-offense OWI conviction, making it a felony and required ignition interlock systems for repeat offenders. The law, passed in 2009, also amended first-offense laws with interlock ignition systems installed when someone has a blood alcohol content level of 0.15, nearly double the legal limit of .08, and increased first-offense to a misdemeanor if a child under 16 years old is in the vehicle.
The latest bill regarding drinking and driving is Assembly Bill 98. The bill proposes to install an ignition interlock device to begin on the date of the court order, rather than when a driver’s license is reinstated. State Rep. Ed Brooks, R-Reedsburg, is one of the co-authors of the bill.
“There’s been a problem in the past where a person is arrested but they don’t make a court appearance for quite awhile and in the meantime they are able to drive,” Brooks said. “This would expedite the installation of breathalyzers possibly before trial so you don’t have that gap in there.”
Rep. Dave Considine, D-Baraboo, said the bill has the “broadest support” on both sides of the aisle. Brooks said the bill could reach the Assembly floor sometime this fall.
Erpenbach and Considine say there should be a balance of both punishment and treatment options available for those convicted of OWI offenses.
“You don’t change behavior by punishing,” Considine said. “You change behavior by teaching, training and providing alternatives for people.”
However, having access to mental health and addiction services in rural areas can be a challenge “because we underfunded counties to a degree on that particular level,” Erpenbach said. “But at the same time a lot of mental health providers don’t necessarily set up shop throughout Wisconsin.”
Erpenbach said incarcerating a person for a year costs Wisconsin taxpayers $50,000. He said finding treatment options instead of enforcing harsher penalties could not only save taxpayers money, but save lives as well.
“If you’re convicted in harming someone in a drunk-driving accident, you not only have a debt to pay to that family but a debt to pay to society,” Erpenbach said. “There has to be punishment for those types of crime. But at the same time, there has to be services available for that person, even before the idea of a crime happening so that the services are there and they take advantage of it.”
To help people encourage good decisions, organizations are stepping up to try and reduce the number of drinking and driving incidents in the area.
Bar Buddies started in 2012 in Sauk Prairie and has become well-known around the Sauk County area. There are now Bar Buddies services in Baraboo, Reedsburg, Lodi and recently in Spring Green.
Heather Ceaser, program coordinator for the Sauk Prairie Bar Buddies, said from 7 p.m. until the last bar closes Wednesday through Saturday night, the organization in Sauk Prairie provides from 10 to 70 rides a night. She said services may increase on holidays such as New Year’s Eve and Thanksgiving to about 200 rides.
“Even if you can’t tip our drivers, we don’t care,” Ceaser said. “We want to make sure you make it home safely.”
While the organization will charge a per-person rate for rides from one bar to another, the ride home always is free. Ceaser said she sees a lot of “repeat riders” utilize the program.
“That’s something where a lot of people have personally thanked us and said, ‘I’d probably be in jail or dead if you guys weren’t here,’” Ceaser said. “They will ride with us consistently every single night they are out.”
Another organization in Wisconsin Dells is the SAFE RIDE program run by the Wisconsin Dells/Delton Tavern League. The program partners with 45 bars and provides vouchers to bars to hand out to patrons.
“They call us and we provide them free of charge a safe ride home,” said Wisconsin Dells Taxi owner Keshia Gregerson, who coordinates for the SAFE RIDE program.
She said there is an increase in service during the tourist season in the Wisconsin Dells area from May through September.
“We’re getting people home to Kalahari Resort and Wilderness Resort,” Gregerson said. “It’s not like it’s limited as far as you have to be a resident of this city to use it. It is available to every single person in this area that needs to go to a residential address.”
Gregerson said the program provides more than 5,000 rides a year in the Wisconsin Dells and Lake Delton area. She has also noticed how proactive people are being before going to a place where drinking will be involved.
“I have seen fatalities, accidents and OWI rates drop,” she said. “I’ve seen more people utilize it every year.”
Sauk County Sheriff Chip Meister said both programs have caused OWI rates to drop.
“We can see a direct correlation that when the Tavern League SAFE RIDE program and the Bar Buddies program is used less our OWI arrests go up,” Meister said.
Meister said another reason for the decrease in arrests is people becoming more aware of the dangers of getting behind the wheel after too much to drink.
“They plan properly when they are going to go out and drink,” he said. “They are more responsible.”
Calkins said the Sauk County Drug Court received a grant from the state to expand its drug program to include those who have received multiple OWI offenses for alcohol. Calkins said most of the crimes dealing with alcohol relate to other crimes like battery and other drug use.
“If we can change them from being an alcohol- or drug-addicted individual to a person who is a sober individual the crimes they would normally commit disappear,” he said. “We’re trying to hit the root causes. If we can teach this person by the intensive supervision program and by treatment and become a sober individual and get them working on a job that benefits society… We’re going to be better off in the number of offenses that don’t get committed.”
“We have to change the thought where it’s OK to do. People know it’s not OK to do, yet they will go to the retirement party after work or something simple and not realize how alcohol is impacting them and get behind the wheel to drive home.” Mark Schauf,
Baraboo Chief of Police