Wisconsin has a drinking problem. This is not exactly news to state residents. Last year the CDC reported that nearly 23 percent of adults here are binge drinkers, putting Wisconsin among the top in the nation.
A study by a division of the Department of Health and Human Services noted that Wisconsin is also number one in drunk driving, with 23.7 percent of all people 16 years or older driving under the influence of alcohol over a one-year period.
The lack of teeth in our drunken driving laws has also been widely reported. They are among the weakest in the nation. Wisconsin is the only state where first offense drunken driving is a traffic offense and is only a crime when a child younger than 16 is in the vehicle.
So Sen. Alberta Darling’s (R-River Hills) plan to propose tougher drunken driving laws is a good one. The legislation would make a person’s third OWI a felony. At the moment, it is a felony after a fourth conviction within a period of five years.
Darling and Rep. Jim Ott (R-Mequon) are also pondering a sobriety checkpoint pilot program and treatment programs for repeat offenders.
Some have balked at the costs, but that is a misguided complaint. The Department of Transportation estimated that alcohol-related crashes cost the state more than $500 million in 2000. Not to mention the hundreds of people killed every year in a car accident involving drunk driving.
While it is great that Darling and Ott are trying to do something about the problem, we need more lawmakers to get serious about it. We also need to focus on more than just drunken driving laws. The drinking problem here is cultural, as evidenced by a series of deaths across the state this year alone.
There is the well-known case of Michael Philbin, 21 when he died after falling through the ice in Oshkosh back in January. In April, UW Stevens-Point student Eric Duffey, also 21, died in March. He accidentally drowned in the Wisconsin River.
Two other recent deaths in Milwaukee highlight the severity of binge drinking statewide. In May, 32-year-old Robert Pierzchalski fell from a downtown Milwaukee parking lot after a night of drinking. He was found at 3 a.m. The Medical Examiner’s report notes that he was tailgating prior to a Brewers-Cubs game that began at 1 p.m. He then went bar-hopping on Water Street until 1 or 2 a.m. That means Pierzchalski might have been drinking for more than 12 straight hours prior to his death.
The other recent accidental death is that of , which received widespread media attention. He was missing for nearly two weeks before his body was found in March in the Milwaukee River. Like Pierzchalski, he had spent many hours drinking prior to disappearing. Hecht and his friends had participated in a St. Patrick’s Day pub crawl.
The fact that Philbin and Duffy and Pierzchalski and Hecht were not driving did not save them. All are dead way too young because they made foolish decisions after consuming too much alcohol. As long as we keep acting as if binge drinking is normal, acceptable behavior, these senseless and preventable deaths will continue. Why does anyone need to drink all day and night? Why are so many residents of this state unable to go out for a beer or two? Instead it's six, eight or 10 beers, not to mention hard alcohol.
Whether it’s a Packer/Brewer/Badger game day, St. Patrick’s Day, or a random Saturday night, it should not be considered normal to consume that much alcohol in a single day.
So while it’s commendable that Darling and Ott are developing legislation to stiffen up our drunken driving laws, there are other serious alcohol-related problems in Wisconsin that need immediate attention.