Wisconsin legislators propose steeper penalties for reckless driving in what's been labeled a 'public safety crisis'
Reckless driving has gotten so bad in the city of Milwaukee that Mayor Cavalier Johnson has declared it a public safety crisis. In recent years, the city has allocated more than $30 million to safer roads, curb extensions, speed humps and traffic circles.
Now, a bipartisan group of legislators in Madison are trying to pass state laws that stiffen penalties.
Every year, about 2,900 people are injured in reckless driving crashes—and 119 people were killed last year alone. Abby Strong’s husband, a pastor at Milwaukee Grace Lutheran, was one of them.
READ Reckless driving is a deadly crisis in Milwaukee, a new plan hopes to end that
“My husband Aaron Strong was the victim of reckless driving, so reckless that the driver was driving over 70 miles per hour on the wrong side of the road through four red lights before colliding with his Nissan sedan,” said Abby Strong.
A variety of bills in Madison seek to deter such incidents. Democratic Representative LaTonya Johnson of Milwaukee co-authored the legislation. On Tuesday, she recounted for lawmakers a reckless driving event that was personally devastating.
“My daughter's friend 22-year-old Christina Marlene Hernandez. We called her Marlene and her best friend Francis were riding in an Uber headed to Marlene’s house when their Uber was struck by a reckless driver in a stolen car. Marlene was pronounced dead at the scene," said Johnson.
Johnson and Abby Strong spoke to the Assembly Committee on Criminal Justice and Public Safety. They were voicing support for Assembly bills 55 and 56, which have been introduced by a bipartisan group of legislators.
Republican representative Bob Donovan of Greenfield is one of the drafters. “AB 55 would double the current penalties for all instances of reckless driving, including fines and imprisonment,” said Donovan. “And I think that is the important message that needs to be sent to the individuals involved in this behavior, that we will no longer tolerate it.”
The bill would raise maximum fines for a first offense from $200 to $400, and a second or subsequent offense from $500 to $1000. Donovan said that 77% of reckless driving fines have gone unpaid in the city of Milwaukee since 2020.
Republican Representative Cindi Duchow of Delafield then asked: “Have you found any way that we can make people pay these encourage them to pay them? If they don't pay them? Can they be arrested? I mean, if they aren't going to pay the fine, and nothing happens, what good is the fine. So if you run across that at all?”
In addition to increasing fines, jail and prison penalties would rise. For instance, someone who drove recklessly and caused great bodily harm to someone else would face a class H felony instead of a class I felony. That would bump the maximum penalty to 3 years of prison and 3 years of supervision.
AB 56 would allow municipalities to pass ordinances to impound cars driven by reckless drivers when the owner-slash-driver has a previous conviction and has not fully paid fines. “This legislation will assist in the removal of the instrumental tool in reckless driving the motor vehicle,” said Donovan.
Milwaukee mayor Cavalier Johnson was in Madison for the public hearing to support the new legislation during what he declared as a public crisis. “Anytime a local government has the opportunity to have more tools at their disposal to address a situation on the ground that we deal with at the local level, the stronger position will be we'll be able to be able to actually find some resolution to those problems,” explained Johnson.
But it’s not clear that harsher penalties for laws do the trick. In 2017, Marquette Law Professor Michael O’Hear told WUWM that what matters more is the certainty of punishment – not the severity. “And from that, you might infer that we would do better spending money on police departments and increasing the likelihood that offenders will be apprehended, rather than pouring that money into extremely lengthy prison terms in the corrections department,” O’Hear assessed.
A spokesman for Mayor Johnson reiterated that supporting increased penalties would be one additional tool in a comprehensive effort to reduce reckless driving. He said the city already permits towing of unregistered cars used by reckless drivers. He added the Milwaukee Police Department has indicators showing a decline in reckless driving, and the mayor is working to make sure that continues.