By M.D. Kittle | Wisconsin Reporter
MADISON — He had no license, no legal right to operate a vehicle.
But John E. Prochaska has been down this road before — several times.
Police picked up the 42-year-old Barneveld man early Sunday morning in Mount Horeb and arrested him on suspicion of operating while intoxicated. Prochaska, looking at his fifth drunken driving conviction, was six times over the legal blood alcohol concentration limit of .08, police said.
A fifth conviction would place Prochaska in the middle of the pack when it comes to repeat offenders in a state that is known for drunken driving redundancy.
In 2011, four people were convicted of their 11th OWI in Wisconsin, and eight other drivers were hit with their 10th drunken-driving conviction, according to the latest state Department of Transportation statistics obtained by Wisconsin Reporter.
Records show 98 motorists notched their seventh OWI conviction, and 2,733 were three-time drunken-driving convicts.
Last year, there were 28,213 OWI convictions in the Badger State and nearly 39 percent of those were repeat offenders, according to a DOT report.
While convictions have declined significantly in recent years due in large part to stricter laws and, experts say, tough economic times, the cost of drunken driving to society at large remains a multi-billion-dollar problem.
In 2010, 10,288 people were killed in the U.S. in alcohol-impaired driving crashes, about 31 percent of all fatalities, according to the latest figures available from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Someone was killed by a drunk driver every 51 minutes.
Alcohol-related deaths claimed the lives of 211 children under the age of 14, about 17 percent of traffic crashes involving children.
In Wisconsin in 2009, the most recent year that the numbers are available, there were 6,429 alcohol-related crashes resulting in 3,793 injuries and 238 fatalities.
“People have to think of drunken driving as a violent crime because it is a violent crime,” said Frank Harris, a Wisconsin native who now serves as state legislative affairs manager with Mothers Against Drunk Driving.
Beyond the toll in lives, consumers and taxpayers are left paying the tab for the devastation impaired driving leaves in its dust.
A study by the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation found drunken driving cost the United States $132 billion in 2009 — $61 billion in direct expenses, $71 billion in quality-of-life losses. That includes everything from increased car insurance payments to lost production in the workforce.
Taxpayers picked up nearly $8.2 billion of the bill, $4.5 billion in federal expenditures, $3.2 billion from state and local governments. And employers, the study found, were on the hook for about $10.7 billion.
In Wisconsin, there is no definitive measure of the costs related to drunken driving. As MADD’s Harris put it, we’ve got all kinds of statistics to tell us the probability of Milwaukee Brewers’ relief pitcher John Axford blowing a save opportunity, but no one has come up with a state assessment on a social ill that has wounded thousands of lives.
John Dyck, fiscal analyst for the nonpartisan Wisconsin Legislative Fiscal Bureau, which conducts research and analysis for the state Legislature, said it’s difficult to affix a financial figure to the taxpayers’ share of costs related to intoxicated driving. It would be tricky, he said, separating expenditures in law enforcement, social services programming, transportation services and a litany of other multiple-purpose budget items.
The bottom line is the fiscal bureau, which has tracked a long list of government expenditures, hasn’t analyzed the financial impact of alcohol-related crashes.
Some outlays are easy to track, however.
Wisconsin’s Pretrial Intoxicated Driver Intervention Grant Program, administered by the DOT, provides treatment funding for repeat offenders. Successful completion of the program often leads to more lenient sentences. The bill to taxpayers: $731,600 per year.
Wisconsin Act 100 appropriated $6.6 million to the state Department of Corrections for enhanced treatment services for OWI offenders — mainly repeat offenders — serving time in state prison, according to Dyck’s Informational Paper #59, an analysis of Wisconsin’s intoxicated driver laws, prepared in January 2011. An update is expected early next year.
The Legislature’s Joint Committee on Finance also had up to $8.8 million to release to several departments and agencies — Corrections, the state Department of Justice, local district attorneys and public defenders – for support services.
In 2010-11, the committee released about $1.953 million to cover the costs of electronic monitoring, ignition interlock systems and Sobrietor equipment, used to test the sobriety of repeat offenders and keep them from driving after drinking.
Offenders are expected to pay for a large portion of the costs to prevent and prosecute drunken driving.
Beyond the related court costs and fines, intoxicated motorists are required to pay a $365 Driver Improvement Surcharge, expected to pay for related costs – from blood alcohol testing at the state lab at the University to funding for Safe Ride programs, offering free rides to the intoxicated statewide.
The state receives 40 percent of the surcharge, while local entities claim the remainder.
In 2009-10, the state collected more than $4.55 million in surcharges. Still, Dyck said about a third of the surcharges go unpaid, despite threats of license suspension.
The Dairy State, widely known for cheese, bratwurst and beer (not necessarily in that order), has long been criticized for some of the more lenient drunken-driving laws in the land.
MADD’s Harris said the long-standing line has been a first offense OWI in Wisconsin is nothing more than a “glorified traffic ticket.”
A basic first offense in Wisconsin is a municipal infraction, subject to a fine of $150 to $300, with no jail or probation time. No other state treats first-offense drunken driving as a traffic infraction, akin to speeding.
Second offenses come with fines of up to $1,100, and jail sentences of five days to six month, considerably lighter punishments than in other states.
Harris and his fellow crusaders assert that while habitual drunken driving is a problem in Wisconsin, first-time offenses are far more frequent, resulting in the brunt of deaths and injuries on roadways.
MADD is pushing for less reliance on license suspension and revocation, which the organization says does little to keep repeat offenders off the roads, and a greater emphasis on ignition interlock devices. The organization also calls for sobriety checkpoints, something long resisted in Wisconsin as unconstitutional despite an early 1990′s U.S. Supreme Court ruling stating otherwise.
State Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, pushed legislation last session that would make a third drunken-driving offense a felony. As it stands, impaired driving doesn’t rise to felony status until the fifth offense, or on the fourth offense if the conviction follows a third offense within five years.
Darling did not return a call seeking comment, but last month she told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that the time was right to take another look at drunken driving.
“We have to get to a point where people are going to think about driving when they’re impaired,” she said.
Darling’s proposal is the track the National Motorists Association would like to see the state take.
John Bowman, spokesman for the Waunakee-based, 9,000-member organization that advocates for “common sense” highway safety and fair traffic laws, said Wisconsin already has plenty of laws on the books. Instead of going after first-time offenders who are unlikely to re-offend, the focus of enforcement should be on those with multiple convictions, Bowman said.
“Chronic offenders are going to drive no matter what we do with them,” he said. “We need to pull their licenses and registration, but they’re always going to find a car to drive. Those are the people who require stiff prison sentences to get them off the road for long time.”
Bowman points to traffic fatality statistics as evidence that tougher drunken driving laws are working in Wisconsin.
Between 2006 and 2010, Wisconsin alcohol-related fatalities decreased from 307 to 205, a decline of 33 percent, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. That outpaces the 23-percent decline in such deaths nationally during the same period.
Drunken-driving convictions, too, dropped from more than 40,000 per year between 2004 and 2007 to about 28,000 last year.
Traffic-safety efforts, however, concede that the weak state of the economy has played a role in cutting drunken-driving convictions and crashes during the past few years.
And while experts agree tougher laws are making a difference, they say tougher economic times are taking drunken-driving fighting resources from state and local coffers.
Seventh time’s the charm?
Paula Perrin would seem to be just the kind of habitual offender that, advocates of tougher punishments might say, should be locked up for a long time.
The 40-year-old Darlington woman was convicted of OWI seven times before she finally got the message, according to Nina Emerson, director of the Resource Center on Impaired Driving at the University of Wisconsin Law School.
It took Perrin some jail time, a small fortune and the suicide of her 22-year-old son — who was drinking at the time of his death — to come to terms with her life, Emerson said.
Perrin says she has been sober for more than three years and serves on the Wisconsin State Council on Alcohol and Drug Abuse. She has detailed her experiences in a DVD produced by Emerson.
Dealing with the dilemma of drunken driving is not as simple as tougher laws and longer sentences, Emerson said.
“Would we rather have them taking care of their kids or sitting in a prison cell?” she said, offering some advice. “Quit focusing solely on increasing the penalties. That’s all the Legislature wants to do. They want to get tougher. Ask Paula how that works?”
Habitual offenders in particular, Emerson said, are battling alcoholism and other mental illnesses, or they probably wouldn’t keep making the same dangerous decisions. She said society must treat drunken-driving holistically, addressing the root causes.
Emerson takes issue with the assertion that there is a disparity in drunken-driving sentencing from one courtroom to the next across the state, but a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel review found that of the 161 fifth-offense OWI cases between 1999 and 2006, less than half of the defendants went to prison.
But what does a state, already facing scores of alcohol-related traffic fatalities every year and tens of millions of dollars in direct costs, do while repeat offenders continue to drink and drive? How do you get to the holistic healing before an intoxicated driver bears down the highway in a three-ton weapon?
“That’s the million-dollar question,” Emerson acknowledges.