Four members of a working group studying ways to reduce drunken driving in Wisconsin — a state with notoriously lax laws — resigned Thursday and said bar and tavern owners have too much influence on the committee and are not interested in actually combatting the problem.
The task force members said in their resignation letter to the head of the Wisconsin Department of Transportation that there was no willingness to correct errors, contributions from doctors and other experts were ignored, and "procedural roadblocks" were put in place by state officials working to update the highway safety plan.
Randy Romanski, safety programs chief at DOT who was coordinating the group, was not available to comment. A department spokeswoman said she was working on a response to the resignation letter.
The resigning task force members said in their letter to DOT Secretary Mark Gottlieb that the only named non-governmental partner working with the department on the plan is the Tavern League of Wisconsin, which represents bar and tavern owners.
"This group has — at best — a serious conflict of interest," the letter said.
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Tavern League executive director Pete Madland said in an email that the group was committed to working with DOT on ways to reduce alcohol-related fatalities and to reduce drunken driving.
"Many on the Task Force have not always agreed with me on the issues but I never considered quitting. Instead, we will continue to work together to attempt to reach consensus," Madland said.
Wisconsin is the only state in the country where first offense drunken driving is not a crime. The National Survey on Drug Use and Health, using data from 2006 to 2009, found that 24 percent of drivers over age 16 reported driving impaired. That is the highest in the country and compares with 13 percent for the nationwide average.
The Wisconsin Legislature in recent years has passed a series of bills designed to toughen the drunken driving law, but opponents of criminalizing first offense drunken driving, including the Tavern League, have stifled attempts by the Legislature to take that step.
Drunken driving-related accidents killed 223 people in 2012 in Wisconsin, according to the most recent data posted on DOT's website. Wisconsin's drunken driving fatality rate, with 3.4 deaths per 100,000 residents, exceeds the national average (3.2) and is much higher than neighboring Illinois (2.5) and Minnesota (2.1).
Those resigning are Dr. Richard Brown, a family doctor, Dr. Stephen Hargarten, an emergency room physician at Froedtert Hospital in Milwaukee, Julia Sherman, coordinator of the Wisconsin Alcohol Policy Project, which is based at the University of Wisconsin Law School, and Maureen Busalacchi, director of Health First Wisconsin.
"It is our hope the Wisconsin Department of Transportation will refocus its efforts on the many evidence-based actions that prevent impaired driving and alcohol misuse, as opposed to sweeping up the debris left behind," their letter said.
Neither Sherman nor Hargarten said they knew the status of the final report, but they raised concerns that the circulated draft misrepresented the nature of underage drinking, contained significant factual errors and focused on ineffective measures to address drunken driving.
"Members who expressed concern were told the document could not be corrected or amended and that failure to ratify the document would endanger Wisconsin's federal highways funds," the resignation letter said.
The four task force members asked that their names and associations be removed from the document, saying their participation "lends credibility to a hollow process."
Hargarten, who is a professor and chair of the Medical College of Wisconsin, said in an interview that the process for coming up with a drunken driving reduction plan was flawed because those leading it did not seem interested in a diversity of opinion.
"I have seen alcohol-related injuries, the tragedies, the heartbroken family members, and the long-term disabilities that are the results of this," Hargarten said. "We are a significant state in leading the nation in binge drinking. We really have an alcohol-related injury problem that's costing this state billions of dollars. We've got to get serious about it."