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New penalties, impoundment authority aimed at curbing reckless driving in Milwaukee

City ordinance allows police to tow repeat reckless drivers' vehicles

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milwaukee mayor cavalier johnson signs a bill
Milwaukee Mayor Cavlier Johnson signs an ordinance on Friday, May 12, 2023 that is aimed at stopping reckless driving. Evan Casey/WPR

Milwaukee leaders are hopeful two new measures signed into law this week — one by Gov. Tony Evers and one by Mayor Cavalier Johnson — will help deter people from driving recklessly in the state’s largest city.

The statewide bill, signed by Evers on Wednesday, increases the fines for reckless drivers across the state. The other, signed by Johnson on Friday, allows police to tow a vehicle owned by a repeat reckless driver under certain circumstances.

Reckless driving is an issue that has plagued the city for years, as city leaders have been trying to tackle the problem using different approaches. Addressing it is one of Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson’s main goals, as he’s called the issue a “crisis.”

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At a Friday press conference, Johnson said the city measure isn’t meant to just tow vehicles.

“The goal is to have compliance, the goal is to have people follow the law, be respectful behind the wheel and make sure that they are paying attention so that they don’t endanger themselves, anyone else or endanger the greater public safety,” he said.

Milwaukee Alder Lamont Westmoreland said he thinks the measures are a step in the right direction, but more needs to be done to address the issue.

“I’m excited that we have given MPD (Milwaukee Police Department) another tool that they can pull out of their toolbox because we are in a state of emergency right now,” Westmoreland said. “This is a good start … however, we need to do more.”

An accident on Milwaukee’s north side can be seen here on June 21, 2022. Evan Casey/WPR

Alder: ‘Milwaukee is in a state of crisis’

Last year, the Milwaukee Police Department issued 496 reckless driving citations, a 32 percent increase from one year prior. The department didn’t have data available for 2023 when requested by a reporter Friday.

Milwaukee Alder Mark Chambers lost a close friend to a reckless driving incident in 2021.

“Right now, Milwaukee is in a state of crisis, with the pandemic that is reckless driving,” he said.

Data from the Milwaukee County Medical Examiner indicated there were 88 motor vehicle deaths in the county in 2022. According to the Wisconsin Traffic Operations and Safety Laboratory, 32 of those deaths involved pedestrians. In 2013, there were just five pedestrian traffic deaths in Milwaukee County.

Reckless driving is also a statewide issue. The Wisconsin Department of Transportation said about 2,900 people are injured in reckless driving crashes every year in the state. Last year, 119 people in Wisconsin were killed by reckless drivers.

A Taco Bell in Milwauke is surrounded by a fence that was damaged during a fatal crash.
A Taco Bell at the corner of Milwaukee’s West Fond du Lac Avenue and West Congress Street is surrounded by a fence that was damaged during a fatal crash. West Fond du Lac Avenue doubles as State Highway 145 — a “connecting highway” that runs through the city. Photo taken on Sept. 14, 2022. Angela Major/WPR

The measure Evers signed into law on Wednesday passed the state Assembly by an 85-12 vote in March.

With it, the penalty for a first reckless driving offense will increase from $25 to $200, while a second offense will now go from a $50 fine to $500. Fines for subsequent offenses have been raised from $100 to $1,000, and repeat offenders can be sentenced to jail time. If reckless drivers cause “great bodily harm” to someone, their maximum prison sentence could be six years, up from three-and-a-half years right now.

The city measure, modeled after a Wisconsin statute, was unanimously passed by the Milwaukee Common Council Tuesday.

It says police can impound a vehicle used in violation of the state’s reckless driving statute when the driver is the owner of the vehicle, has a prior reckless driving citation and hasn’t “fully paid” the fine. The owner has 90 days to pay any fines and storage fees for the vehicle. If those fees are not paid within 90 days, the vehicle can be destroyed or sold by the city.

Westmoreland said he believes the measures will help save lives in the long run.

“At the end of the day, when these vehicles are out there on the road, they are weapons,” he said. “The way I see it, we have to get as many weapons off of the streets as possible.”

Jordan Morales, vice president of the Sherman Park Community Association, said he hopes the new measures will be successful in addressing the problem.

“But it really comes down to if the police are going to enforce it,” he said.

In early February, the city received $4.4 million in federal grants to implement traffic safety improvements at 26 intersections across the city. That includes installing high visibility markings, upgrading traffic signal equipment and making intersections compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Street redesign and engineering can help narrow the roadway, making it more difficult for reckless drivers to swerve in and out of traffic. Funding could also be used for traffic circles, pedestrian islands and curb extensions.

The Milwaukee Police Department’s Traffic Safety Unit also gave out over 13,000 traffic citations last year — 7,414 of which were for speeding.

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