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‘Enough is enough’: Incoming Milwaukee mayor takes the wheel to curb reckless driving

Despite past efforts, city has seen a surge in traffic fatalities and vehicle theft

Traffic on University Ave. in Madison, Wis.
Traffic on University Avenue in Madison, Wis. Bill Martens/WPR

As the new omicron variant sweeps across the state, another crisis is also claiming Wisconsin lives at a quickening clip: reckless driving.

According to the state Department of Transportation, Wisconsin has had 583 traffic fatalities so far in 2021 — a five-year high with more than a week still to go. Officials say risky and reckless driving has increased since the pandemic.

This is a particular problem in Milwaukee, where a surge in stolen vehicles has coincided with increased traffic fatalities and record homicide rates.

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But Milwaukee City Council President and incoming Mayor Cavalier Johnson plans to do something about it. On Tuesday, he unveiled the city’s plan to curb what he called a “reckless driving scourge.”

“(An) all-hands-on-deck approach is needed to take a stand against reckless driving by first acknowledging the severity of the crisis and second acting with urgency necessary in order to address it,” Johnson said at a press conference in Milwaukee on Tuesday.

Sixty-five people in Milwaukee have died this year as a result of reckless driving, according to police data, and 340 sustained serious injuries.

“No matter where you go in Milwaukee, this is an issue,” said Johnson.

And it has been an issue for a while.

In 2019, the city launched a public awareness campaign to reduce reckless driving in the city’s most dangerous intersections. Earlier this year, the Milwaukee Police Department created a Traffic Safety Unit and ratcheted up enforcement of reckless driving. Since then, they have issued nearly 19,000 citations. Fifty-six percent of those were for speeding.

“Yes, the city has undertaken some points of meaningful action on this problem. But clearly, it’s not been enough to move the needle,” said Johnson. “In most people’s views, the city’s response hasn’t had the impact that they need and expect, and residents are rightfully frustrated by that. So, I’m here today with many of our concerned partners to say that enough is enough.”

Addressing reckless driving has been a priority for Johnson as an alderman, but he said his new role as mayor will allow him to issue more immediate directives. He plans to start by declaring reckless driving an official public safety crisis his first day in office.

The new S.T.A.N.D. for Safer Streets Plan announced Tuesday focuses on engineering, enforcement and education.

“This isn’t a report to be stuck on a shelf. This is a plan for action. My administration will engage in a comprehensive effort to increase the deployment of physical road improvements, strategies and technologies to hold drivers accountable and public education to improve road safety and curb reckless driving in the city of Milwaukee,” Johnson said.

A significant portion of the plan relies on strategies and technology to hold drivers accountable. This includes things like red light cameras and license plate identification software. It also directs $1.15 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act funding to deploy more officers for traffic enforcement.

But Assistant Police Chief Paul Formolo said police can’t solve the problem alone.

“We are not going to enforce or cite our way out of this crisis. Enforcement is only one piece to the overall plan and strategy,” said Formolo.

Part of the problem is inadequate infrastructure. The plan includes funding for physical road improvements and safe street design — things like speed bumps and curb extensions.

The plan also calls for free driver’s education programs in high schools and for adults.

Fueling the problem in Milwaukee is a spike in vehicle theft. Johnson said the city is on track to see 9,000 cars stolen in 2021 — double the number from 2020.

Under Johnson’s new plan, veteran retired investigators would be deployed to investigate vehicle theft. The Office of Violence Prevention will provide diversion programming for young people with histories of reckless driving.

Much of this would be orchestrated by a new traffic coordinator in the mayor’s office. This appointee will also oversee the city’s ambitious efforts to become a Vision Zero community, eliminating traffic fatalities within ten years.

For Sherman Park resident and activist Jordan Morales, these are exactly the kind of changes he has been asking to see in the city’s efforts to curb reckless driving.

“It’s the number one quality of life issue in the city. And I’m very thankful to have someone coming into the mayor’s office that’s getting ready to take real action,” said Morales, at Tuesday’s press conference.

Milwaukee isn’t alone in the fight for safer streets.

Madison is also a Vision Zero city that has stepped up traffic enforcement. The city has issued 13,373 citations for reckless driving and is piloting a program that reduces speed limits to 20 mph in some residential neighborhoods.

Still, traffic fatalities in Madison increased 10 percent in 2021. East Washington Avenue alone is responsible for six deaths. And officials attribute much of this increase to reckless driving, including the crash this summer that killed Wisconsin Public Media’s own Gene Purcell. On Tuesday, the driver in that case was charged with homicide by negligent driving. Evidence shows that just before the crash, the driver was going 65 miles per hour in an area where the speed limit was 30.

This is the kind of reckless driving that Johnson said makes his constituents scared to drive, walk or ride a bike in the city.

“What good is a city if we can’t guarantee safe passage for our students to school, we can’t guarantee safe passage to go to the grocery store?” said Johnson.