Christian Schneider

Author, Columnist

Category: Transportation

Free Speech on a Plate

My new column is up at the Isthmus – it discusses why the state bans benign vanity license plate messages, and suggests ways the state can profit from mulleted-Americans:

As P.J. O’Rourke once said, for some people, free speech is a curse. So if people want to put “GEEK” or “NOSEX” on their plates, why not let them? In fact, “NOSEX” is simply a synonym for “MARRIED,” so why not ban that, too?

It just seems incongruous that Wisconsin state government would want such a tight grip on its citizens’ right to express themselves. There’s no law banning what people can put on a bumper sticker, so why do we care what goes on their license plate? If they are willing to pay extra to be an imbecile in public, let’s let them — most people get to be morons for free.

In fact, the state is turning down extra revenue every time it doesn’t let some guy with a mullet put “HELLYEA” on his El Camino’s vanity plate.

A Blueprint for a New Wisconsin Drunk Driving Law

Lawmakers in Wisconsin now appear serious about getting tough on drunk driving in Wisconsin, following the death of 39 year-old Jennifer Bukosky, her unborn child and 10-year old daughter at the hands of three-time convicted drunk driver Mark Benson. Even Governor Jim Doyle has proposed making a third drunk driving offense a felony. Other lawmakers have proposed confiscating offenders\’ cars after a third offense, as well as sending drunk drivers directly to prison (Benson killed Bukosky and her children during a period before he was supposed to report to jail after his third conviction.)

When crafting a tougher new law, the sensible thing for legislators to do is to see what other states have done to crack down on drunk driving. The National Conference of State Legislatures has provided a chart that details every state\’s criminal drunk driving statute. When you look over the list, Wisconsin stands out in how light we are on drunk driving offenders. In the overwhelming majority of states, first non-accident offenses are at least a misdemeanor (although, admittedly, \”misdemeanor\” means different things in different states.) Exceptions from first-time misdemeanors include New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Louisiana, and New Hampshire – although subsequent offenses usually ratchet up the penalties in those states.

Generally, it is the third, fourth, and fifth offense (usually within a period of a few years) that moves the offense up to a felony in most states. Yet in Wisconsin, the first non-injury offense is a civil conviction. Injury-related DUI offenses constitute either a Class D or Class F felony. Second through fourth offenses are criminal misdemeanors that carry time in the county jail, with a fifth offense moving up to the felony level. (And, as we hear about at least once a year in Wisconsin, if you lose your license, you can always drive your tractor to the liquor store.)

For a full list of Wisconsin\’s criminal drunk driving penalties, click here.

(In addition to being a civil conviction, Wisconsin law is even lighter on drivers with blood alcohol content between .08 and .1. For a summary of the .08 law, click here.)

While higher criminal penalties are one way other states go after repeat drunk drivers, they aren\’t necessarily the only option.

25 states have opted for mandatory ignition interlock systems for some drunk drivers. Wisconsin is one of 20 states that allows ignition interlock devices to be installed \”at judicial discretion,\” which is weaker than some states that make the interlock devices mandatory in some or all cases. Several studies show drunk driving recidivism rates drop between 50 and 95 percent when ignition interlock devices are utilized. While some fear that these devices are too easy to circumvent (such as by having someone else blow into the tube for them), newer technology is arriving that makes that more difficult. For instance, some new devices include breath pulse codes, hum-tone recognition, and \”blow-and-suck patterns.\”

From the NCSL report on ignition interlock systems:

Four states have taken the lead on ignition interlocks by making them mandatory for all convicted drunk drivers, even first-time offenders. New Mexico was the first state, with a law passed in 2005, to require ignition interlocks for all offenders. The state has seen a 28 percent decline in alcohol-related fatalities since the new law went into effect.

Since then, three more states-Arizona, Illinois and Louisiana-have passed similar laws that mandate an ignition interlock for every convicted drunk driver. Oregon and Washington require ignition interlocks for all offenders who want to have their driving privileges reinstated. Colorado, Kansas and New Hampshire make them mandatory for repeat offenders and those convicted of so-called \”high BAC\” offenses. Sixteen states require them in some circumstances, while 20 states and the District of Columbia allow interlocks at the discretion of the courts.

Five states at some point have employed either special license plates for drunk drivers, or required a sticker be affixed to their license plate. The effectiveness of these programs seems to be mixed, as Oregon let their pilot program lapse without reauthorizing it, and Iowa repealed the law altogether. According to NCSL, five states considered new license plate laws in their 2008 sessions.

27 states have passed laws creating enhanced penalties for driving drunk with children in the car. (In 2003, one Louisiana woman was found passed out in her car with five children, ages 4 to 9, in the car with her.) 16 states have increased the penalties for refusing chemical blood alcohol tests.

A new Wisconsin law could employ any number of these strategies. But it must be done right, and it has to pass the common sense test to which it will undoubtedly be subjected to by the public.

Is the Zenn a Good Idea?

Milwaukee recently decided to further its quest in becoming yet another municipality to allow electric cars on streets with speed limits at 35 mph or less. The first such vehicle that seems to be a candidate is the Canadian manufactured Zenn. This car is a very good idea. It will be able to travel up to 35 miles on a full charge, which takes about 8 hours to complete or just 4 hours to get a nearly full charge. According to the manufacturer, it costs only 1 or 2 cents per mile to operate whereas a conventional car costs 8 to 12 cents per mile. It maintains a car frame with all of the convenient features of a car such as air conditioning and power windows. The Zenn is great for the environment giving off no harmful emissions at the automobile level.

But there is one problem I can foresee. The Zenn cannot travel faster than 25 miles per hour. Since it is allowed on streets with speed limits up to 35 miles per hour, I do not personally look forward to getting stuck behind a Zenn while driving on busy streets in Milwaukee. While it is true that disobeying the speed limit causes many accidents, it is also likely that driving too slow causes accidents as well, especially on hectic streets in Milwaukee.

It is my humble opinion that 25 mph is too slow of a regulated speed for the Zenn and should not be allowed on city streets with stated speed limits of 35 mph. For some people, driving in Milwaukee is stressful enough. Looking out for unreasonably slow cars is one more headache I would like to avoid.

Gouged by a Nut Roll

I\’m pretty sure I\’m the only one in our office building that eats the Pearson\’s Nut Rolls out of the vending machine in the basement. I can see where people would think they\’re gross, but I\’m a sucker for nougat.


Anyway, yesterday I noticed the price of said nut rolls has jumped from 70 cents to 80 cents.  That would be a 14.2% increase in one day.  Then I noticed a piece of paper taped to the top of the vending machine that explained it:

The surge in energy prices has made processing and transportation from our suppliers significantly more expensive.

So, the vending company is passing on the increase in gas prices on to me, a loyal salty nut roll consumer.  This is an outrage. Businesses should be able to recoup their operational costs on the backs of customers.  Isn\’t Governor Doyle proposing banning the vending company from passing the gas price increase on to my snacks?

You can see the whole vending company letter here.

Wisconsin’s Gas Tax Follies

George Will takes on Wisconsin’s minimum markup law on gas in this column today.  He says:

Pelosi and others who just know, evidently intuitively, the “fair” price of gasoline must relish what has happened in Merrill, Wis., where Raj Bhandari owns a BP gas station. He became an outlaw when he had what seemed, to everyone but the state’s government, a good idea. He gave a discount of 2 cents per gallon to senior citizens and 3 cents for people who support local youth sports programs.

But Wisconsin’s Unfair Sales Act requires retailers to sell gasoline for 9.18 percent above the wholesale price. The state’s marvelously misnamed Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection has protected consumers from Bhandari’s discounts by forcing him to raise his prices. Some customers now think he is price gouging.

Some Wisconsin legislators are considering changing the Unfair Sales Act to allow retailers to discount gasoline to benefit things those legislators think should be benefited. In Madison, Wis., as in Washington, D.C., it is considered eccentric to think that government should butt out, let people buy and sell as they please, and let markets equilibrate.