WI: Alcohol-related fatalities dropping in Wisconsin
By Andy Thompson
July 22, 2015
Alcohol-related fatalities in Wisconsin have dropped by nearly 50 percent over the past decade, due in large part to targeted enforcement and public awareness campaigns, state transportation officials say.
A review of Wisconsin Department of Transportation statistics showed that 162 people died in crashes involving alcohol in 2014, down from 185 in 2013 and 223 in 2012.
David Pabst, director of the Bureau of Transportation Safety for the DOT, said the alcohol-related fatality count was 326 in 2004 — roughly two times higher than the 2014 death toll.
“That’s a 10-year span with a nearly 50 percent reduction,” Pabst said. “That is huge. It’s still a problem, but we have made significant inroads into this problem.”
Pabst said the 23 drunken-driving task forces in Wisconsin and high-visibility campaigns on the dangers of drinking and driving are major reasons for the sharp decline.
“When task forces are out there, officers are looking for drunken drivers on purpose,” Pabst said. “That has a real deterrent effect.”
Roadblocks are illegal in Wisconsin, but “roving patrols” to nab intoxicated drivers are permissible, according to Pabst.
The task force deployments are announced in advance on social media, giving motorists fair warning about where officers will be patrolling. “People know this is going on,” said Pabst.
Michael Panosh, regional program manager for the Wisconsin State Patrol’s Bureau of Transportation Safety, oversees task forces in Brown, Manitowoc, Sheboygan and Marinette counties. A task force had been in place in the Fox Cities, but it is no longer operating.
Panosh said the high-profile deployments have caught the attention of drivers.
“It’s always very hard to judge awareness … (but) we think the word has really gotten out there,” he said. “There’s a considerable buzz when the task force hits the streets. It’s very obvious when it is out.”
Panosh said it is telling that parking lots in deployment areas are typically full the morning after police patrols, strongly suggesting that motorists are avoiding drinking and driving.
Pabst also credited the Tavern League of Wisconsin’s SafeRide Program for the decline in alcohol-related fatalities. The program provides rides to impaired drivers and is financed by surcharges for operating while intoxicated offenses and by donations from taverns.
A report on 2013-2014 activity from the Tavern League indicated that 80,000 rides — at a cost of more than $960,000 — were provided statewide.
“It is really a successful program,” said Pabst. “I think that has made a big difference (in the decline of alcohol-related fatalities) as well. They’re an excellent partner with us.”
Pete Madland, executive director of the Wisconsin Tavern League, said no taxpayer funds are used for SafeRide.
“There’s no program like it in the country,” he said. “Our members volunteer to run the program; they do a great job of administering and funding (it).”
Officers Michael Lambie of the Fox Valley Metro Police Department also praised the SafeRide program, saying it is a key part of an overall strategy to keep intoxicated people off the road.
Lambie said the police department made 68 drunken-driving arrests through July 17 of this year, compared to 52 arrests at the same point in 2014.
“Throughout the Fox Valley in general, departments take an aggressive stance toward drinking and driving enforcement,” he said. “We put a focus on enforcement action. It’s a joint community effort.”
Grand Chute Police Chief Greg Peterson said drunken-driving enforcement “is always a high priority for us,” especially on weekends.
Peterson couldn’t pinpoint a reason for the overall decline of alcohol-related fatalities in Wisconsin.
“I’m not sure why they’ve scaled back,” he said. “I think there are certainly still a number of drivers out there who are impaired and haven’t gotten caught.
“But it is an excellent trend — whatever the explanation might be.”