November 10, 2014

State stung by task force resignations

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Despite arrests, fines, convictions and prison time, many Wisconsin drivers continue to drink and drive. The Gannett Wisconsin Media Investigative Team in cooperation with the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism in Madison is documenting the pervasive problem of repeat drunken driving that plagues this state in an eight-day series, Under the Influence.

Read the series here.

In June, four members of a state task force created to combat drunken driving resigned, saying they would no longer lend credibility to a “hollow process” in which the alcohol industry had too much sway.

In their resignation letter, the four accused the Wisconsin Department of Transportation’s Statewide Impaired Driving Task Force of focusing “on interventions that have little impact or are not proven to be effective.” They cited various slights that led them to conclude the state was uninterested in their input.

WisDOT Secretary Mark Gottlieb, a former Republican state lawmaker, has tried to contain the damage. He met with three of the resignees and sent a conciliatory letter promising changes and inviting their renewed participation. The 38-member task force, which produced an August 2013 report outlining goals, continues to meet.

One resignee, Julia Sherman of the Wisconsin Alcohol Policy Project, called the sit-down with Gottlieb productive, saying “we all left with a feeling that we had been heard.”

But Sherman, whose grievances include the group’s use of outdated alcohol industry documents she called “one step from propaganda,” is still weighing whether to return. She signed a follow-up letter to Gottlieb that stressed lingering concerns about the influence of the alcohol industry in guiding state policy.

Dr. Richard Brown, a national expert on substance abuse screening and intervention, resigned from the state’s task force and “remain(s) pessimistic that serving on that committee can actually make a difference in our state.”

Jeff Miller / University of Wisconsin-Madison

Dr. Richard Brown, a national expert on substance abuse screening and intervention, resigned from the state’s task force and “remain(s) pessimistic that serving on that committee can actually make a difference in our state.”

Another resignee, Madison family physician Dr. Richard Brown, a national expert on substance abuse screening and intervention, is sure he will not be back. He thinks the group has little “policymaking clout” and appears to exist largely to fulfill a mandate for federal highway funding.

“I remain pessimistic that serving on that committee can actually make a difference in our state,” Brown said. “We really need a higher body to set a policy course.”

Brown, who serves as clinical director of the Wisconsin Initiative to Promote Healthy Lifestyles, cited “decades of research” on which approaches work. Among the most promising, in his view, are sobriety checkpoints, holding bars legally liable for the consequences of over-serving, and reducing overall binge drinking, a category in which Wisconsin has led the nation.

Sherman added that the state needs to take a broader approach. “Less than 20 percent of alcohol-related deaths are caused by impaired driving,” she said.