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The Peter K. O'Rourke Special Achievement Award

The Peter K. O'Rourke Special Achievement Awards recognize notable achievements in the field of highway safety during the prior calendar year by individuals, coalitions, organizations, nonprofit groups, businesses, government agencies, universities or programs. About Peter K. O'Rourke

2009 Winner: Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

All 2009 Highway Safety Award Winners

Milwaukee Skyline

The State of Wisconsin has long struggled with a strong culture of drinking and a serious drunk driving problem. For approximately 15 years, the state led the nation in percentage of drinking drivers as well as in binge drinking. It remains the only state to punish first-offense drunk driving violations with a traffic ticket. Not surprisingly, more than a third of the people convicted of drunk driving in 2008 were repeat offenders.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel decided to use its resources to increase awareness about these critical issues and begin influencing the culture of drinking in the state. The paper devoted a year-long series called “Wasted in Wisconsin” to detail the abuse of alcohol and the powerful and destructive impact it has on every segment of the state. The editors noted that awareness can trigger resolve, and resolve can lead to voluntary steps and changes in laws that could make Wisconsin roads safer for everyone.

Forty-nine journalists traveled the state and told the story in all its complexity. Story topics included the victims, the legal system, the power of the alcohol industry and the general acceptance of drunk driving in the state. Much of the series does not make for easy reading, especially “Sobering Reminders,” the chronicle of 72 lives lost, one for each county in the state.

The series generated substantial discussion throughout Wisconsin. While it is too early to assess legislative impact, more than 30 different legislative enhancements have been proposed. Victim advocates and highway safety proponents have used the series to build momentum for the elevation of a more positive traffic safety culture in the state.

In today’s economy, amid the decline of print journalism, it is rare for a newspaper to devote so much space to the issue of drunk driving – particularly a year-long series. “Wasted in Wisconsin” was a brave endeavor that will translate into lives being saved. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel is to be commended for its leadership and dedication to protecting its state’s citizens.

To view the series, go to