Wisconsin lawmakers reignite fight against drunken driving

MADISON — Two Republican lawmakers have reintroduced three bills in the Wisconsin Legislature that would impose stiffer penalties and ignition interlock requirements for drunken drivers.

Rep. Jim Ott of Mequon and Sen. Alberta Darling of River Hills introduced the bills Thursday. One would create a five-year minimum prison sentence for homicide by intoxicated use of a vehicle. There is currently no minimum sentence for the crime. The second would raise the minimum incarceration period for fifth and sixth offenses from six months to 18 months. The third would prohibit all offenders from driving any vehicle without an ignition interlock. The device measures a driver's blood alcohol content like a breathalyzer and prevents the car from starting if the driver is over the limit.

Wisconsin law already requires all offenders to place an interlock device on their vehicles when their license is reinstated. Ott and Darling said in a joint news release that drunken drivers who drive someone else's car before they regain their license can be ticketed for driving without a license but not for violating the interlock requirement.

"The bills are part of an ongoing effort to make penalties for impaired driving more in line with the seriousness of the crime," Ott said in the release.

Wisconsin's drunken driving laws are relatively lax. It's the only state that treats a first offense as a civil violation rather than a crime. Opposition from the powerful Tavern League lobby and exorbitant cost estimates have dampened past attempts to toughen the statutes.

The Associated Press emailed the spokeswomen for Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald inquiring about support for the bills this session.

Ott has been working for years to tighten the rules and fulfill a promise to constituent Judy Jenkins, who lost her pregnant daughter and her 10-year-old granddaughter to a drunken driver in 2008. But he has struggled to gain traction. He introduced the interlock bill in 2013 but it died in the Senate. He and Darling introduced the minimum sentence bills last session but they didn't get so much as a hearing.

Ott said by phone that he's more optimistic this time, because he can build on the momentum of a bill that Gov. Scott Walker signed last year making all fourth drunken driving offenses a felony and increasing maximum sentences for seventh, eighth and ninth offenses. What's more, the Tavern League supports all three bills. Pete Madland, the league's executive director, said in Ott and Darling's release that their bills "complement our efforts by going after the worst offenders who give everyone else a bad name."

Frank Harris, director of state government affairs for Mothers Against Drunk Drivers, said that organization supports the bills.