'We don't have a lot of tools': Wisconsin's reckless driving laws under the microscope

The I-Team digs into the law and loopholes
Devante Gaines and Jerrold Wellinger
Posted at 5:17 AM, Oct 26, 2021
and last updated 2021-10-26 23:56:32-04

This is Part 1 in a two-part series on reckless driving. To read the second story, click or tap here.

MILWAUKEE — Some weeks it seems we report on reckless driving in the city of Milwaukee on an almost daily basis. It's an issue many may see on their ride to work every day.

The consequences also bring harsh realities, injury and death in the blink of an eye. That was the case at 60th and Hampton this August when 22-year-olds Jerrold Wellinger and Devonte Gaines were killed at the hands of a reckless driver.

"Right here is my son," said Julie Wellinger, mother of Jerrold, holding an urn with his name on it. "22 years old. This is all I have left of my son."

She met with the I-Team at the site where her son was killed. Two men were racing down the street, clocked at more than 120 miles per hour seconds before the crash.

Two dead after car crash near 60th and Hampton

"They had no chance," Wellinger said.

"We are talking about lethal speeds," said Judge Richard Ginkowski.

Ginkowski is a municipal judge in Pleasant Prairie and is president of the Wisconsin Municipal Judges Association. He sees the rise in reckless driving and excessive speeding cases in his courtroom, even noting speed has outpaced drunk driving as the biggest killer on Wisconsin's roadways.

Wisconsin Department of Transportation traffic fatality data shows 167 people were killed in alcohol-related crashes in 2020, compared to 194 speed-related deaths last year.

"We don't have a lot of tools," Ginkowski said. "If we did we would use them."

The judge compared it to the options available to judges when they're facing a drunk driver.

"With a drunk driving case, you require an alcohol assessment and they must follow any recommended treatment. So you're trying to look at the cause of alcohol-impaired driving, same thing with drug-impaired driving," Ginkowski said. "Our options for speeding, we don't have options like that. Basically, all we can do is fine them and take away their driver's license, and that's about it."

'We don't have a lot of tools': Wisconsin's reckless driving laws

Per state law, a first-time OWI conviction in Wisconsin brings with it a maximum fine of $300. Wisconsin's drunk driving laws are sometimes considered the lightest in the country.

If you're convicted of reckless driving for the first time, the maximum fine is $200.

Another issue is how speeding is enforced in Wisconsin. If you're caught going 25 miles per hour or more on a street with a 55 miles per hour zone or higher, you lose your license for 15 days. But if that occurs on a residential street, there's no mandate to take your license away.

Milwaukee Police Capt. Jeffrey Sunn tells us speeding that fast in a 30 or 35 mile per hour zone could potentially do more damage than on the freeway.

"You still have cross traffic, and when you have speed and you have these cross intersections, that’s when you have a majority of these accidents," Sunn said.

'We don't have a lot of tools': Wisconsin's reckless driving laws

"The shock comes more when you hear the responses from the people, because they most of the time pretend they have no clue what you're talking about and they know exactly what they've done when you pull them over," said MPD Officer Melissa Krug.

Krug is part of the motorcycle enforcement with the Traffic Safety Unit. She says the majority of her stops are at least 20 miles per hour over the speed limit.

"Some days it gets frustrating," she said. "It gets hard too, because it continues to happen you feel sometimes you aren't making a difference. But everyone that we do pull over, eventually it does make a difference. And you just have to remember that."

Frustrating for the officers, and often devastating for the families of the ones hurt or killed by reckless driving.

"Every Saturday at 4:41(p.m.) I release one balloon in his honor, and to let him know how much I love him," said Wellinger. "I will do this 'til the day I die."

The I-Team explores what needs to change in Milwaukee and Wisconsin. Tune in to TMJ4 News at 10 for more.

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