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I-Team: Will reckless driving proposals curb bad driving?

Potential solutions include stiffer fines, more mental health funding to better public transit
Posted: 5:24 AM, Feb 22, 2022
Updated: 2022-02-28 07:54:04-05
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Watch this report Tuesday on TMJ4 News at 10 p.m.

WEST ALLIS, Wis. — Reckless driving continues to dominate headlines in Milwaukee, and after an I-Team report last year looked at possible loopholes and gaps in the state's laws, several proposals have come forward.

Starting in West Allis, where city officials including Police Chief Patrick Mitchell and City Attorney Kail Decker made headlines by announcing they would impose a stricter penalty on egregious reckless driving. Instead of citing them for reckless driving, which carries a $200 fine, they would impose a misdemeanor charge of negligent operation of a vehicle.

"The people we give the ticket to, it can be a little bit of an eye-opener," Mitchell said.

"The difference in forfeitures is significant from $200 to $10,000," Decker said.

So far, West Allis has hit two drivers with the heavier penalty, and both cases are ongoing, Mitchell said.

2 tickets issued within 6 weeks

The West Allis leaders say they have a list of additional proposals they are considering bringing to state lawmakers, and shared their ideas with the I-Team, including increasing that $200 maximum reckless driving citation penalty.

In Illinois, the reckless driving penalty is a misdemeanor, with a maximum fine of $2,500 and up to a year in jail.

Cash penalties may not be getting through to everyone. The I-Team pulled payment patterns for common traffic violations in the city of Milwaukee.

In 2021, the municipal court issued fines in 16,230 speeding cases. In 6,715 cases, the fine was paid in full. In more than half, 8,920, there have been no payments made.

The pattern is similar for reckless driving cases, where 211 fines were issued last year. In 150 cases, there have been no payments made and just 42 have been paid in full. For those fined for unreasonable and imprudent speed, 78 of the 281 cases last year were paid in full and 186 received no payments.

Cash penalties not getting through to everyone

Pleasant Prairie Municipal Judge Dick Ginkowski is the president of the Wisconsin Municipal Judges Association. He says in his own courtroom, about two-thirds of people won't show up in court.

"For someone to say I can't pay because I'm too poor, that's kind of a red herring because of the fact that we are required by law to offer options to those people," he said.

But Ginkowski notes punitive punishments are not the only way out of the reckless driving problem, instead saying early intervention with young drivers facing mental health or substance abuse issues in the home could go a long way towards curbing all reckless behavior.

"More importantly is to keep people from getting into trouble in the first place and that is to encourage good driving habits," he said.

In West Allis, the list of potential proposals also includes imposing additional fines on the owner of the vehicle, similar to noise complaints, as well as impounding the car for reckless driving violations.

"The theory is money will deter some people but not everyone is detected by money," Decker said. "One thing you can do is take away the tool they used to commit the offense and create that danger."

The City of Milwaukee is considering a similar proposal, but state Rep. Supreme Moore Omokunde said policymakers may want to pump the breaks.

"I think that we would run into some property rights violations there if we're looking at taking people's vehicles away," he said.

'Punitive approaches aren't as successful'

Moore Omokunde sits on the Assembly Transportation Committee and is invested in improving Wisconsin's infrastructure, something he says would help get more cars off the road and curb reckless driving in the long run.

"Get cars off the roads and some of our busiest streets could be avoided," he said.

Another issue: better public transportation to additionally take cars off the road. But it's no secret that's something limited in the city of Milwaukee, and it's also a political minefield.

Take for example the Hop. From one point to the other, it took years to negotiate and receive approval, and it spans a little more than two miles.

"We need to be rebuilding our city, we need to be doing a vast improvement on our public transit," Moore Omokunde said. "We need to put funding into public transit."

For law enforcement dealing with reckless drivers on a daily basis, the problem appears to need a quicker solution.

"We're at a point where you look at the fatality statistics, in this region they are incredibly high now compared to what they would have been 10 years ago," Mitchell said. "We need to find a way to get that number going back down in the right direction."

West Allis officials say they are waiting to see how their approach with the negligent use charge goes before they approach state lawmakers with their additional proposals.

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