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OWI on ATVs, boats, and snowmobiles are now considered separate offenses, but a new bill could change that

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MADISON (WKOW) -- A proposal with support from lawmakers in both parties seeks to have the intoxicated use of different recreational vehicles all charged under the same umbrella.

Currently, if someone in Wisconsin is cited for drunkenly operating a boat, an ATV, and a snowmobile all within the same year, they would not be considered a repeat offender - unless they'd previously been convicted of OWI for that specific type of vehicle before.

Jeff Hensen, the sales manager at Engelhart Motorsports in Madison, said Tuesday he believed it was more important than ever to ensure strict enforcement of laws against the intoxicated use of ATVs, off-highway motorcycles, and snowmobiles, all of which his dealership sells.

Hensen said that's because the pandemic has driven more people into seeking new outdoor activities; his business can hardly keep up as demand, combined with smaller inventories due to supply chain problems, means vehicles normally in the showroom for up to two months are now selling in less than a week.

"The demand for off-road recreational product is just at an all-time high," Hensen said.

Hensen worried with more inexperienced riders hitting the trails in ATVs or snowmobiles, it could lead to more people downplaying the risks of operating in a remote area after drinking.

"A lot of newcomers to powersports would assume that 'we're on an off-road vehicle in the middle of nowhere, there's nobody around us. It's just us so it doesn't hurt to have beer or two or a cocktail or two,'" Hensen said.

Hensen added he was surprised to learn OWI charges for recreational vehicles are currently handled separately by type of vehicle and that such charges do not affect the status of someone's driver's license.

A pontoon boat glides across Lake Monona Tuesday, July 6, 2021

Another run at the bill

The co-author of Assembly Bill 280, Sen. Andre Jacque (R-De Pere), said he was hopeful the bill would not only make it out of committee but be scheduled for votes this fall before the full Assembly and Senate.

In previous sessions, similar legislation has cleared committee but never received a full vote.

"If we can't do some of the very simple things, it's going to, I think, negatively continue to impact our reputation as a state that does not take drunk driving with the seriousness that it deserves," Jacque said. "And unfortunately there's a very human cost to that."

Jacque accused the Tavern League of Wisconsin, one of the state's most influential lobbying groups, of putting the kibosh on past efforts to pass the bill.

"I have been told by their leadership, by their lobbyists that the reason why they did not endorse me was because of this bill," he said.

The Tavern League did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday.

Rep. Lisa Subeck (D-Madison) said she signed on as a sponsor of the bill after hearing stories relayed in past sessions by the Badger State Sheriffs Association.

"They talked about the fact it's actually not that uncommon for somebody who has had their [driving] privileges revoked due to drunk driving to hop on their snowmobile or ATV and go out to the bar," Subeck said.

Rules for the Road too

The bill also states anyone convicted of a repeat offense for intoxicated use of a recreational vehicle would have their driver's license revoked for at least six months.

On the flip side, anyone whose driver's license is suspended for drunk driving would not be allowed to legally operate a boat, ATV, or snowmobile.

The bill was originally scheduled for a public hearing Wednesday but was removed from the calendar Tuesday. Representatives for both Jacque and fellow co-author Rep. John Spiros (R-Marshfield) said there was no hold-up for the bill, just that Jacque was unable to be in Madison Wednesday.

Jacque said he hoped legislative leaders Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) and Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu (R-Oostburg) would put up the bill for a vote during the next scheduled floor period in September.

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