It should come as no surprise that Wisconsin has the highest rates of drunk driving fatalities in the country: a first-time drunk driving charge in Wisconsin is considered a traffic offense and not a criminal charge for any adult who is found to be operating a vehicle while intoxicated (OWI). Underage drinking and driving is also a problem in Wisconsin, especially considering the examples set forth by adults who drink and drive or even permit a minor to drink at home, or in public.
In Manitowoc, Wisconsin, a 13-year old girl was recently arrested for OWI while driving around with other, intoxicated teenage passengers in the vehicle. As defined by federal guidelines, the legal drinking age in Wisconsin is 21, but, the state has several exceptions to that rule that allow a parent, legal guardian or spouse who is 21 years of age, or older, to permit an underage person to consume alcohol, legally, unless an establishment (bar, restaurant, tavern) explicitly states otherwise. Minors may also consume alcohol for religious or medical purposes. While there is no evidence the minor was permitted to consume alcohol by an adult, a connection between lax drunk driving laws and the minor’s behavior can certainly be drawn. In fact, a study in 2009 shows that almost 20% of underage drinkers in Wisconsin had a first drink before the age of 13 and Century Council states that 12% of OWI fatalities are attributed to underage drinking and driving.
Without penalties for underage and adult OWI offenses in Wisconsin like mandatory substance abuse treatment programs and car breathalyzer or ignition interlock installations, more 13-year old children will treat an OWI as a joyride and become adults who continue to drive drunk. Through harsher penalties, more education and a true “zero tolerance” policy toward underage drinking, Wisconsin can change its reputation, and help save lives affected by drunk drivers.