Curbing Drunk Drivers

Wisconsin leads the nation in the number of people who admit to drunk driving according to a new study. Twenty-six percent of those surveyed or 2,696 Wisconsin adults told researchers they had driven under the influence. This is 70% above the national average of fifteen percent who admit to driving under the influence.

I suppose one could argue that Wisconsin is just more honest about drinking and driving. But when you look at the numbers related to alcohol and deaths on our roads, they are equally sobering.

Half of all traffic-related deaths in Wisconsin are linked to alcohol. Wisconsin ranks 4th in the percent of alcohol related traffic fatalities according to recent statistics compiled by the National Conference of State Legislatures.

And the statistics hide the real families and lives that are affected.

A tragic accident in Waukesha County recently took the life of a school administrator, her ten year old daughter and her unborn baby. The victims were hit by a drunk driver who had just been convicted of his third drunk driving offense.

The tragedy spurred the Governor and several legislators to call for new drunk driving penalties including a mandatory felony for a third time offense. This means time in prison.

According to Circuit Court Judge Lee Dreyfus Jr., currently most third time offenders in his court spend 125 days in the county jail. But making the penalty a felony would require time in prison, not the county jail.

Dreyfus, who was quoted by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel , said the best way to curb drunk drivers is to get them involved in effective treatment. He suggested perhaps we should dedicate a prison to drunk drivers and have them get treatment there.

Brad Schimel, the Waukesha County District Attorney, told a Journal Sentinel reporter that he doesn’t disagree with making the third offense a felony but warns of the costs: “more jail and prison cells, more district attorneys, more probation and parole officers and more public defenders.”

And just how much would it cost?

In 2001, (the most recent figures I could find) we had 16,708 people with third time OWI convictions. The cost of keeping just these folks locked up in our state prisons for a year would be over $415 million. That’s a lot of cash when budgets are tight.

And even locked up, they may not receive the treatment the judges ordered.

Several months ago, I visited the state women’s prison, Taycheedah, and learned that just because a judge orders treatment does not mean the inmate leaves prison having completed that treatment. There are nearly 800 women incarcerated at Taycheedah. Workers told me about 70% of them have alcohol or drug problems and almost 200 have court ordered treatment.  The treatment program has slots for only 36 inmates. 

Next week I will join the Eau Claire Coalition for Youth Health and Safety to learn about effective programs for dealing with alcohol and substance abuse among youth.  People are looking to an effective program in Washington County, Minnesota for answers on what works. The coalition invited a diverse group of participants including judges, parole officers, substance abuse counselors, educators and leaders from three counties to join together to work on the problem.

We have a long way to go to solve this problem. But we must begin to understand what works. In tight budget times we need to know how to wisely spend our dollars. This means working together to find the best and most cost effective answers.