Spotlight on Wisconsin's drunk driving laws, most lenient in the US

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If you get arrested for drunk driving in Wisconsin, you'll get off easier there than in almost any other state in the country, according to a recent examination of drunk driving records by the Gannett Wisconsin Media Investigative Team.

And that includes drivers who have multiple convictions for operating while intoxicated (OWI).

The project, reported by Gannett media outlets around the state, found the number of drivers with multiple drunk driving convictions increased in more than half of Wisconsin's 72 counties.

Statewide, 822 motorists were convicted of their fifth or greater OWI offense last year, a slight increase of three convictions from the previous year, according to data from the Wisconsin Department of Transportation.

Despite that trend, Wisconsin lawmakers show little interest in stiffening drunk driving penalties in the state, according to Gannett.

Wisconsin remains the only state in the country that doesn't treat a first offense for drunken driving as a crime. Instead, the offender gets a traffic citation.

The state last revised its drunk driving law in 2010, but it doesn't make an OWI a felony until the driver's fourth offense.

State Sen. Tim Carpenter, D-Milwaukee, has tried to push through still tougher penalties for drunk drivers in the state, with no success.

"We have one of the biggest problems in the nation, and yet we have some of the fewest solutions to correct it," Carpenter told CBS News, which recently aired a nationwide story on the situation.

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Why the resistance to change?

Part of it has to do with Wisconsin's reputation as a place where people like to drink. Recent surveys rank Wisconsin as the No. 1 or No. 2 state when it comes to binge drinking.

And as Gannett Media reported last year, the drinking culture extends to drunk driving.

One prosecutor said people consider their first OWI conviction almost a status symbol that doesn't carry any real stigma.

Meantime, the list of people getting punished for five or more OWI convictions continues to grow. Just within the past few weeks, two men were sentenced in Superior, Wisconsin, to prison time – one for his 11th DWI and the other for his ninth, according to the Superior Telegram.

Both men will be eligible to get their driver's licenses back in three years, the newspaper notes.

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