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Editorial: 'Drunkest state' - it's no joke

Stating the problem is easy. Finding the solution isn't.

You'd be hard pressed to find anyone to deny that drunken driving is a huge problem in Wisconsin. But so far we've made little or no progress in reversing the deadly and embarrassing statistics.

Statewide, 225 people died in alcohol-related crashes in 2011, the most recent year for which nationwide statistics are available. That year 2,984 were injured. Of the 28,213 OWI convictions in Wisconsin in 2011, 38.6% of drivers were repeat offenders.

In early 2012 the Center for Disease Control ranked Wisconsin as the "drunkest state." CDC research showed that almost 26% of adults reported binge drinking in the previous year.

While some of us hung our heads in shame at that designation, others grinned at comments about Wisconsinites being too drunk to read the report.

The state ranks ahead of all the other 49 states in alcohol consumption and binge drinking, and somehow too many of us can't just drink and sit but seem compelled to drink and drive.

There's nothing wrong with an adult having a bottle of beer or a glass of wine, but turning social drinking into an endurance contest and turning driving into a demolition derby is just plain stupid.

With more than a quarter of adults admitting to binge drinking in a single year, none of us can claim we aren't part of the problem. If we aren't irresponsible drinkers, someone close to us is and we are doing nothing to stop them.

This session, two state lawmakers - Assemblyman Jim Ott and Senator Alberta Darling -- are trying again to pass legislation that would criminalize first drunken-driving offenses, make a third conviction a felony and establish mandatory minimum sentences for drunken drivers who cause crashes.

Their plan is to introduce six bills, each with a different drunken-driving provision, with the hope that some of their proposals will pass.

The bill that's up for consideration first would impose a minimum of three years in prison for those convicted of their 7th through 9th OWI offenses. A minimum four-year term would be imposed for those convicted 10 times or more.

Also, the bill requires a 30-day jail sentence for those causing injury while driving with blood alcohol levels as low as .04. Right now, that offense carries a minimum fine of $300.

The other OWI crackdown measures proposed by Ott and Darling have not been scheduled for hearings yet. Among other things, those measures would make three-time drunken driving a felony and set a 10-year minimum prison term for drunken homicide.

Ott said he and his fellow legislator aren't trying to outlaw drinking, they're simply trying to warn drinkers not to drive.

"We're the only state where a first offense is equivalent to a traffic ticket," Darling says. "That, to me, is sending the wrong message. We have to have this conversation in Wisconsin where we seriously talk about the culture of drinking and driving."

Creating deterrents for first-time offenders is key, Darling says. She said that in other states even the first offense carries more of a stigma and people are "very afraid to get caught."

People having fun and drinking with friends often don't see the "tragic flip side" of impaired driving, said Darling.

If Ott and Darling's proposals become law, some state agencies say Wisconsin would have to spend about $250 million to send thousands of people to jail and another $236 million to build almost 20 new jails to hold the people serving time for the offenses.

Our response to that is: Do you have a better idea? Or do we just stand by and watch 225 people die each year?

What are you willing to do to save the lives of 225 fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, sisters and brothers each year? To save the lives of 2,250 people each decade? To save nearly 6,000 people each generation?