Wisconsin’s reputation as a drinking state is ringing true as a new report from the Dane County Traffic Safety Commission shows that injuries related to drunk driving crashes are on the rise.
The report, which was released last week, showed that there were 80 crashes in Dane County between January and June of this year involving alcohol, 41% higher than the five year average of 57 alcohol related crashes.
Additionally, 11 of the 16 crashes that resulted in a death here in Dane County involved someone with a blood alcohol level higher than 0.08, the legal limit here in Wisconsin.
That report came from the Dane County Traffic Safety Commission, a coalition of public and private groups working to improve traffic safety here in Dane County. Cheryl Wittke is the Co-Chair of that commission, and executive director of Safe Communities of Madison, a nonprofit coalition of public and private organizations working to make Dane County a safer place to live.
Wittke says that the report is concerning, because all of these accidents were preventable.
“People are driving under the influence when there are opportunities for people to take an Uber, or for people to make different plans so that people can get home safe. We just need to get that message out there,” Wittke says.
Wisconsin has had a long history with excessive drinking. According to the state Department of Health Services, Wisconsin ranked third in the country in terms of adults who drink alcohol at more than 64%. According to 2019 data, Wisconsin just closely followed both New Hampshire and Washington D.C.
Additionally, according to 2020 data from the CDC, Wisconsin has the highest rate of binge drinking in the county, with more than 22% of adults saying that they binge drink.
In 2019, the most recent data available from the state Department of Transportation, almost 28,000 people were arrested in Wisconsin for Operating While Intoxicated. However, the DoT says that crashes that stem from drunk driving are actually on the decline, and are down 29% from 2006.
But Wittke says that the pandemic reversed that decline.
“There’s also some concern looking at the aftermath of the pandemic. As a community, there’s just more drinking going on coming out of the pandemic. We saw about a 40% increase in EMS calls in Dane County from people drinking to the point of serious injury. I think it’s just stepping back, and looking at the way we are drinking and taking into account driving and drinking is particularly dangerous, and calling attention to that fact,” Wittke says.
There isn’t just one answer as to why Wisconsin has such a strong relationship with excessive drinking, but Maureen Busalacchi, Director of the Wisconsin Alcohol Policy Project, an extension of the Medical College of Wisconsin, says that part of the problem is just accessibility.
“Research shows us that Wisconsin has a lot of outlets. Both the legislature and local governments have allowed for availability and accessibility to alcohol, and we see higher drinking rates. The easier it is to get and the more places you have to drink, you get a lot of excessive drinking,” Busalacchi says.
What can be done to address this issue? Wittke says that police departments can increase their patrols, but individual responsibility will do more to address this issue.
“As hosts, I think it’s important to keep an eye on (excessive drinking), making sure that, if someone is drinking too much, offering another way home or letting them spend the night. Servers also need to keep an eye on (excessive drinking). But yes, individually, just plan ahead. If you know that you’re going to be drinking, either plan on how you’re going to get home safely, or make other plans so you aren’t driving home impaired. We each have that responsibility,” Wittke says.
The Wisconsin State Council on Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse, or SCAODA, have also released 61 recommendations to state and local governments, private organizations, and the healthcare system in Wisconsin, to cut back on excessive drinking. These recommendations include limiting the number of places that serve alcohol near college campuses, increasing the alcohol tax, and additional server training to make sure people aren’t overserved at bars.
Photo courtesy: Nabeel Syed / UNSPLASH