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Penalties for reckless driving could double under new legislation in Wisconsin

About 2,900 Wisconsinites are injured in reckless driving crashes each year

Honda after it was hit by a drunken driver
Jennifer Kilburn’s Honda after it was hit by a drunken driver on the morning of Aug. 9, 2018. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Kilburn

Penalties for people convicted of reckless driving would double under proposed legislation aimed at combating a growing, and sometimes deadly, problem in Wisconsin.

Lawmakers heard testimony Tuesday on two bills aimed at curbing dangerous driving, including an emotional plea from a woman whose husband died in a crash with a wrong-way driver in Milwaukee.

Abby Strong’s husband, the Rev. Aaron Strong, was killed on his way to church in October 2022, when a man driving 70 miles per hour on the wrong side of the road flew through multiple red lights and crashed into his car. He was one of 119 Wisconsinites killed by a reckless driver that year.

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Strong said she supports the proposed legislation to “lower the number of Wisconsin families…from suffering daily the undue pain from reckless driving.”

One of the bills would increase the range of fines able to be imposed on people convicted of reckless driving, and increase potential jail time for the most severe offenses. Another would allow police officers to impound vehicles used in certain reckless driving offenses.

The legislation responds to increases in dangerous driving in recent years and intends to send a message that Wisconsin will not tolerate risky driving practices, said bill co-author Rep. Bob G. Donovan, R-Greenfield.

“The message that I’m hoping this legislation can send is, ‘Yes, the elected leaders of the state of Wisconsin deem this problem this important that we are, in fact, pushing for doubling of the fines and the jail time,’” he said.

The bills were introduced by Republicans and co-sponsored by Democrats who represent Milwaukee and Madison

Representatives from Wisconsin law enforcement unions and Milwaukee Democratic Mayor Cavalier Johnson testified in favor of the bills at a committee meeting Tuesday morning.

Reckless driving has earned particular attention in Milwaukee, with rising fatalities and traffic crashes a significant issue in the city’s mayoral election. But the entire state is affected, said Dean Smith, Oshkosh’s police chief and president of the Wisconsin Chiefs of Police Association.

“We experience this issue throughout the state regardless of size and municipality or location — north, south, east, or west,” he said. “Law enforcement and the communities we protect are forced to deal with this issue on a regular basis.”

One of the two bills increases the range of fines imposed for reckless driving, raising the maximum fine for a first offense from $200 to $400, and substantially increasing fines for drivers whose conduct causes injury. And the potential jail time would double, with maximum jail time increasing from 12 months to two years.

The second bill would allow municipalities to seize cars used in multiple reckless driving offenses. The car owner could get his or her car back after paying a fine.

Traffic fatalities increasing in Wisconsin and around the nation

Traffic deaths in Wisconsin have been on the rise in recent years. The increase is tied to a spike in driving behaviors — such as speeding and driving while distracted or impaired — and a decrease in seatbelt use. Non-fatal serious crashes have increased, too. According to the Department of Transportation, about 2,900 Wisconsinites are injured in reckless driving crashes each year.

That statewide surge appears to have started during the COVID-19 pandemic, when speeding increased while fewer cars were on the road. But as more drivers returned to the streets in 2021, speeds did not decrease, according to state traffic data. At least half of crash fatalities in recent years were linked to reckless behaviors, like alcohol or speeding, according to the Wisconsin Policy Forum.

An earlier Wisconsin Public Radio analysis of state data found 11 counties in Wisconsin saw traffic fatalities increase in 2020 and 2021. These counties included rural areas as well as Milwaukee and Dane Counties. And it’s part of a national trend, according to data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

According to the Milwaukee Police Department, the number of reckless driving citations has increased in the last several months. Police spokespeople have said that’s part of a concerted crackdown on the practice.

Milwaukee Mayor Johnson said these bills would offer Milwaukee additional tools to keep streets safe, and said he supported holding accountable any people who cause violence in Milwaukee. He also said his city needs more money to keep streets safe.

“Local governments need the opportunity to generate additional revenue,” he said.

Sen. LaTonya Johnson, D-Milwaukee, gave multiple examples from her community of traffic fatalities caused by speeding or impaired drivers, including the deaths of a police officer and of her daughter’s dear friend.

Johnson said she supported the legislation “with full and complete understanding that increasing penalties and impounding vehicles alone will not stop reckless driving — but it will increase the price of putting our communities in danger.”

The driver behind the wheel in the crash that killed Strong’s husband was convicted of driving while intoxicated resulting in a fatality, and is awaiting sentencing, according to Abby Strong. She told legislators increased penalties would keep reckless drivers away from potential victims, and that impounding vehicles “takes the weapon out of the hands of reckless drivers.”

“If just one family can be spared this heartache, these bills proudly serve their purposes,” Strong said.

The committee has yet to vote on the bills.