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By Dave Umhoefer February 24, 2014

MADD says most drunken-driving deaths caused by first-time offenders

In assigning Wisconsin one of the lowest grades in the nation in its annual report card, Mothers Against Drunk Driving made an interesting claim about first-time offenders.

"‘First-time’ offenders are rarely first-time drunk drivers," said a MADD news release on Feb. 11, 2014. "Conservative estimates show that a first-time convicted OWI offender has driven drunk at least 80 times prior to being arrested."

MADD continued: "According to the Wisconsin Department of Transportation, a majority of drunk driving deaths and injuries are caused by drunk driving offenders with no prior convictions."

The group spoke out as part of a push for greater use of in-vehicle breath tests, sobriety checkpoints and other measures.

Now, we’ve heard state lawmakers argue that drunken-driving remedies should not hammer first-time offenders, who in Wisconsin alone face no criminal liability upon that first conviction.

But the MADD national office counters that, saying first timers are involved in a majority of fatal and injury drunken-driving crashes.

Are they right?

MADD's evidence

MADD told us it relied on statements in the "Alcohol Traffic Facts" booklet published in 2003 by the Wisconsin Department of Transportation. While dated, it was the latest such research made public by WisDOT at the time of MADD’s news release -- and it was the best source we could find in researching this item.

The WisDOT study found that over a 12-year period from 1991 through 2002, three out of four drivers who had been drinking before a fatal or serious-injury crash had no prior convictions for OWI on their Wisconsin driving record.

"Drivers who have previously been convicted of one or more OWI offenses do not comprise the bulk of drivers in fatal and non-fatal serious injury crashes involving drinking and driving," the WisDOT study said. (emphasis theirs)

So MADD’s "majority" claim hits the mark, based on the WisDOT research.

Beyond the age of the study, there some are other things to bear in mind.

First, DOT noted that drivers’ records are not always complete, and that only post-1989 convictions were counted as "prior," under the law at that time.

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Second, the statistic focused on drivers who had been drinking, a somewhat broader category than the "drunken drivers" in MADD’s claim.

Other evidence

We found additional evidence generally supporting MADD’s claim, though none of it was directly on point. The best data we saw does not get at who caused these accidents.

The Century Council, a distilled spirits trade group, cites 2012 federal government crash data showing that among fatal drunken driving crashes in Wisconsin, 87 percent involved a driver with no prior OWI conviction and 11 percent  involved a driver with a prior OWI conviction in the past 3 years. (Three years is the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration standard for repeat offender.)

That data does not cover injury crashes, though, just fatal crashes. And we note that the NHTSA, the federal agency that collects the data, does not recommend breaking out its data down to the state level.

Nationally, NHTSA says, 93 percent of drivers in fatal crashes with a blood-alcohol level of 0.08 or higher had no previous drunken driving conviction in the previous three years.

Nina Emerson, a veteran drunken-driving researcher in Wisconsin, studied Wisconsin cases of homicide by intoxicated use, and found that three out of four defendants had no prior drunken-driving conviction. For 20 years, Emerson directed the University of Wisconsin Law Schools Resource Center on Impaired Driving, which closed in 2013 when WisDOT ended its funding.

One caution: She defined third offense and beyond as "repeat offenders" because second offense is the first criminal violation in Wisconsin.

Emerson and other researchers emphasize an important truth about the research.

"By most estimates, although repeat drunk drivers comprise a relatively small proportion of the total population of drivers, they are disproportionately responsible for alcohol-related crashes and other problems associated with drunk driving," Emerson and researchers Michael S. Scott, Nina J. Emerson and Joel B. Plant wrote in a drunken driving  guide for the Center for Problem-Oriented Policing.

That guide concluded: "However, even though repeat offenders are disproportionately involved in traffic crashes, most alcohol-related crashes are caused by drivers who have not previously been charged with drunk driving, so police must pay attention to both repeat and first-time offenders."

Our rating

MADD claimed that "a majority of drunk driving deaths and injuries are caused by drunk driving offenders with no prior convictions."

While repeat offenders are overrepresented in such crashes compared to their share of the population, it’s clear that a strong majority of such crashes involve first-time offenders under several different definitions of the term.

The research doesn't match up perfectly with the language in MADD's claim, but the best numbers are tilted heavily in the group's direction.

We rate the claim True.

Our Sources

Mothers Against Drunk Driving, press release, "MADD’s report highlights need for OWI reform in Wisconsin," Feb. 11, 2014

Interview with Frank Harris, state legislative affairs manager, Mothers Against Drunk Driving national office, Feb. 18, 2014

Interview with Nina Emerson, Juvenile Justice Specialist/Compliance Monitor

Wisconsin Department of Justice, Feb. 18, 2014

Interview with Kathryn Henry, media relations, US DOT, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Feb. 20. 2014

Interview with Darron Moffatt, spokesman, The Century Council, Feb. 18, 2014

Wisconsin DOT, 2002 Wisconsin Alcohol Traffic Facts, Section 6, Alcohol Crashes, 2003

MADD, "Campaign to Eliminate Drunk Driving, Report to the Nation," 2014

Center for Problem-Oriented Policing, "Drunk Driving, Guide No. 36," 2006

US DOT, NHTSA, Traffic Safety Facts, 2012 data, December 2013

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MADD says most drunken-driving deaths caused by first-time offenders

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