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David Lowe
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Wisconsin Leads The Nation In Drunk Drivers

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A national study reveals that Wisconsin leads the nation in drunk driving, based on admitted behavior in surveys conducted by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, an agency of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

According to these government surveys about drinking and driving, more than 26% of Wisconsin adults 18 and older admitted that they had driven under the influence in the previous year.

Nationally, the report reveals that 15.1 percent of the nation’s drivers age 18 and older drove under the influence of alcohol at least once in the past year. An estimated 30.5 million people aged 12 or older drove under the influence of alcohol at least once in the past year according to the report.  

Driving under the influence ranged from a low of 9.5 percent in Utah, to highs of 26.4 percent in Wisconsin, 24.9 percent in North Dakota and 23.5 percent in Minnesota.

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) statistics show that there were almost 16,700 deaths in 2004 caused by drunk drivers, placing drunk driving and driving under the influence of illicit drugs as among the leading sources of preventable death by injury in the United States.

With the highest percentage of any state, Wisconsin placed more than 70% above the national average of 15.1%.

A story in today’s Milwaukee Journal Sentinel focusing on the Wisconsin drunk driving statistics quotes Paul Moberg, senior scientist in the Population Health Institute at UW-Madison and co-author of a 2007 study on wisconsin’s alcohol and drug use patterns comments:

“I think it’s something to do with the culture of Wisconsin and what the shared expectations are of behavior,” Moberg said. “People who come from other states remark on it. Any event you go to (in Wisconsin) has alcohol.”

What can be done about this sorry achievement?  Stronger criminal law enforcement is certainly one way.  A civil lawsuit for compensatory and punitive damages is another tool.  A recent Wisconsin Supreme Court case known as Strenke v. Hoger upheld a large punitive damages award against a five time drunk driver against an argument that a drunk driver should not be punished because he does not act with malice against his particular victim.  In the end, though, we need a cultural change; one that sees drinking and driving as abhorrent.