Drunken driving crashes — including at least 11 fatalities — rose sharply during the first half of 2022, according to a new report.
There were 80 automobile crashes between January and June involving alcohol, 41% more than the five-year average, according to the Dane County Traffic Safety Commission, a coalition of public and private organizations working to improve traffic safety.
While the commission is continuing to analyze the data, co-chair Cheryl Wittke said the rise in drunken driving correlates with an increase in drinking since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020.
“There’s just been an overall spike in alcohol use,” Wittke said.
Of 16 fatal crashes this year, 11 involved drivers whose blood alcohol levels exceeded the legal limit of 0.08%, in some cases by up to three times. Wittke said the actual number of alcohol-related fatalities is likely higher because of the time it takes to get lab results on blood drawn after a crash.
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Wittke, who also serves as executive director of Safe Communities of Madison-Dane County, said the commission is working on prevention strategies to be rolled out this fall.
“We believe it’s preventable,” she said.
The Dane County Sheriff’s Office and 13 police departments have grant funding from the Wisconsin Department of Transportation Bureau of Transportation Safety to cover overtime for high-visibility traffic enforcement efforts aimed at curbing dangerous driving.
But Wittke said law enforcement alone can’t solve the problem.
Across all age groups, Wisconsin has the highest rate of excessive drinking in the nation, said Maureen Busalacchi, director of the Wisconsin Alcohol Policy Project, which provides training and technical assistance to help communities address excessive drinking.
And while the definition of binge drinking is generally four to five drinks in a two-hour period, Busalacchi said data show Wisconsinites are typically having nine drinks in a setting.
“We live in a state where heavy drinking has become normalized,” said Brian Dunleavy, whose 20-year-old son, Conor, was killed in 2012 when the car he was riding in was struck by an intoxicated driver going 100 mph on his way from one bar to another.
Lawren Prisk, 52, served seven years in prison for the crash.
“I grew up in a household where my parents were big entertainers,” Dunleavy said. “We watched adults, you know, drinking a lot. They were all professional people. We thought that was OK.”
The Wisconsin Alcohol Policy Project has developed strategies to reduce binge drinking by identifying bars that routinely over-serve customers, as well as community festivals that overemphasize drinking.
“There needs to be community support and buy-in,” Busalacchi said. “Our civic organizations can play an important role in terms of the standards they set.”
Eric Mehring faces up to 25 years of combined prison and extended supervision on each count when he is sentenced in December.
Dunleavy, a retired Madison school teacher who now lives in Milwaukee, said with the availability of ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft there’s no excuse for drinking and driving.
“I’m not asking people not to drink,” he said. “You need to have that game plan in place before you set out on the night. Your executive functioning definitely goes south after a few beers.”