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After a spike in holiday crashes, police remind Wisconsinites not to drive after drinking

Holiday-season crashes increased in 2022 over state's 5-year average

Car accident on city street at night.
Image by pimgmoon from Pixabay

Wisconsin saw nearly 100 more crashes during the holiday season last year than it had in the same period in 2021. This year, officials are promoting the annual “Drive Sober or Get Pulled Over” campaign as part of an awareness effort to promote safe driving.

Crash statistics are complex and influenced by many factors, including the weather and how much traffic is on the roads. But the holiday season is a time of concern, said Wisconsin State Patrol Superintendent Tim Carnahan, because many people are traveling and because many holiday and related celebrations may involve alcohol.

According to state data provided to WPR, the five-year average for impaired driving crashes between Dec. 15 and Jan. 1 is 427. In that five-year period, Wisconsin had the fewest such crashes in 2021, when it recorded 373. But last year the state saw 470 crashes during those 18 days.

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Carnahan said driving is especially risky this time of year because of the potential for slippery roads or hazardous weather in December. He said drivers may be tired or distracted and may be driving in unfamiliar places as they travel for the holidays.

“They don’t know that there’s a sharp curve up ahead, or they’re looking for an address, or they’re looking for an exit sign,” Carnahan said.

But impaired driving is also a factor. Holiday parties, family gatherings, football bowl games and other end-of-year occasions often involve alcohol. Carnahan said he doesn’t use the term “drunk driving” because people’s idea of what “drunk” looks like probably doesn’t match the .08 blood-alcohol limit beyond which it’s illegal to drive.

“‘Drunk’ has a connotation to it, that a person can hardly stand up,” Carnahan said. “I tell people the rule of thumb: If you start to feel the effects of alcohol, you are probably at or very near that .08 limit.”

There was a national spike in reckless driving around the pandemic. In Wisconsin, pedestrian deaths increased by 50 percent from 2021 to 2022. According to data from the Wisconsin Department of Transportation, the state has seen fewer total crashes and crashes with injuries in 2021 and 2022 than it did in 2018 or 2019, but slightly more fatal crashes.

Carnahan noted that the difference between a crash that results in injuries or property damage and one that kills someone can be a matter of inches.

He said law enforcement typically increases patrols around the end of the year. But the real goal is to encourage people to make responsible decisions and not get behind the wheel if they’ve been drinking.

“We would rather not make those arrests or respond to those crashes or, God forbid, have to make that awful knock on the door to let somebody know that their loved one is not coming home,” Carnahan said. “We would rather not be in that business.”