Stronger response is needed to deter bad behavior behind the wheel.

News item: A Beloit woman was arrested July 1 for her ninth drunk driving offense following a traffic collision.

News item: A Janesville man was arrested June 27 for his seventh drunk driving offense when he was found unconscious in a parked pickup with its engine running.

Clearly, Wisconsin’s laws against boozed-up driving are not deterring hardcore drunks from climbing behind the wheel when they are impaired.

Consider a few statistics aggregated by Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD):

  • The FBI estimates there are more than 300,000 drunk drivers on the road every day, with only about 3,200 getting caught.
  • Night-time is most dangerous, with four times the chance of being involved in a alcohol-related fatality than during daylight, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).
  • In America, one person dies every 50 minutes due to drunk driving (NHTSA).
  • Every two minutes someone in America is injured by a drunk driver (NHTSA).
  • Up to three-fourths of those convicted of drunk driving continue to operate vehicles on a suspended license (Transportation Research Board).
  • Liquor is not the only substance contributing to traffic mayhem. It’s estimated as many as 10% of drivers could be impaired by legal or illegal medications.

And while we’re on the topic of highway safety, statistics suggest drivers distracted by texting or talking on a cell phone accounted for 3,142 deaths in 2019 and hundreds of thousands of injuries.

When people are arrested for seventh and ninth and beyond drunk driving offenses, it’s a pretty good indicator the laws are not deterring risky behaviors. Continuing to crack down is necessary, and we support a tougher approach. It’s just as important, though, to invest more in mandatory treatment programs. An unreformed drunk is someone almost certain to reoffend. A strong argument can be made that it’s not enough for courts to dole out jail time. Treatment and continuing monitoring is even more crucial.

As for other road hazards, like texting and hand-held talking while driving, the law should prohibit it and police should stop looking the other way. A law that’s not rigorously enforced is not a law. It’s just political wallpaper. Remember, there were seatbelt laws on the books long before people started routinely buckling up. To get there required police stopping unbuckled drivers and hitting them hard in the wallet.

It’s no secret Wisconsin has a cultural problem in which over-imbibing alcohol is part of a long tradition. Some cultural legacies are worth preserving. This one is not.

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