Janesville72.6°

Uninsured drivers cause havoc on roads

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MARCIA A. NELESEN
October 14, 2007

Susann Sexe thought she was covered.


But she didn’t get a dime from her insurance company after her 17-year-old daughter’s parked car was hit by an uninsured motorist Aug. 30.


Sexe had to buy another vehicle out of her own pocket, this time deciding to pay more for additional insurance coverage.


Sexe of Janesville was angry to find out that Wisconsin’s safety responsibility law—Wisconsin’s alternative to compulsory insurance—probably won’t help her.


“If he took a baseball bat to my car, he’d be charged with criminal damage to property,” she said. “It just makes me sick to my stomach.”


In Wisconsin, one of the few states without a compulsory insurance law, people don’t need to prove they have insurance until after an accident. Wisconsin motorists can lose their license after a crash if they don’t have insurance or other financial means to pay for damages.


In states with a compulsory insurance law, motorists might, for example, be required to prove they have insurance before getting a license or before registering a vehicle, or they might face additional fines if stopped for speeding and they can’t prove they have insurance.


Sexe believes that’s the kind of law Wisconsin should have.


But the president of the state’s insurance trade organization disagrees. He said compulsory insurance doesn’t convince more motorists to buy insurance and actually drives up the cost of insurance.


Sexe had only liability coverage on her daughter’s vehicle, something many parents do depending on the value of the car their children drive.


In making her decision, she had checked the Wisconsin Department of Transportation Web site and read about the safety responsibility law. She decided to buy only liability insurance.


It may be that no kind of insurance law would have changed the thinking of the driver who hit her daughter’s car. The 21-year-old already had lost his license after a drunken-driving conviction and is accused of driving drunk again when he hit Sexe’s car.


Sexe could sue, but that doesn’t mean that she’ll ever get paid.


In reality, such drivers are often “judgment proof,” Janesville attorney Scott Schroeder said.


“You can’t get blood out of a turnip,” he said.


Protect yourself

About one-third of the 75 personal injury cases Schroeder sees every year involve uninsured drivers.


He’s noticed that people have no idea what uninsured and underinsured insurance is.


They don’t understand that their own policies might have to cover themselves and their families because the other driver has little or no insurance.


“You really want to get as much underinsured and uninsured (coverage) as you can buy, that you can afford,” Schroeder advised.


Consumers also can buy umbrella coverage for expenses over and above their insurance limits. The most common umbrella policies sold by agent John Wickhem are $1 million, $2 million and $5 million.


A million dollars might seem like a lot of money, Schroeder said. “But, with the cost of medical expenses for somebody who is seriously injured over their entire life, that’s not a lot of money.”


Schroeder believes compulsory insurance would act as a deterrent to uninsured drivers.


“It’s not going to make people magically have sufficient money to pay for insurance,” he said. But Schroeder notes that he’s sure to have his insurance card with him every time he drives in Illinois, which has compulsory insurance.


Motorists in Illinois, for example, can be fined $500 or more if they can’t prove they have insurance.


“People know which states do not have mandatory insurance coverage to drive,” he said.


Wisconsin’s safety responsibility law, in essence, gives people one free accident, Schroeder said.


“It doesn’t seem to deter driving without insurance.”


Is it effective?

Many insurance agents advocate mandatory insurance, said John Wickhem, a Janesville agent.


The state could increase penalties for those caught driving without insurance, as well, he said.


“If everyone had to buy insurance, you wouldn’t need uninsured motorists on your coverage. If everybody threw money into the pot, the individual premium would be less.”


He especially sympathizes with people such as Sexe, who opted to buy only liability insurance for the young driver. If the other driver had even minimal liability coverage, it would have paid up to $10,000 for Sexe’s vehicle.


The state’s insurance trade association group, however, does not endorse compulsory insurance.


“It does seem bizarre that an industry such as auto insurance would not support a government effort to try to force people to buy their product,” said Eric Englund, president of the Wisconsin Insurance Alliance.


But data doesn’t show significant decreases in the number of uninsured drivers in states with compulsory insurance laws, he said.


The state can’t even stop people who have lost their licenses from driving, he said.


He estimates that Wisconsin’s percentage of uninsured drivers is about 11 percent.


Bit in Colorado, a state with a compulsory insurance law, 32 percent of drivers don’t have insurance.


“People know that they should have insurance on their cars. Passing a law telling them to do something they already know doesn’t make a difference.


“People afford auto insurance as it is affordable to them,” Englund said.


And auto insurance in Wisconsin is among the cheapest in the country, he said.


When states pass compulsory insurance laws, they tend to look at insurance companies to help enforce them. That could mean issuing quarterly insurance cards or merging databases with the state—all costs that would be passed on to the 88 percent of responsible drivers who already have auto insurance, he said.


The amount of insurance to require also is a difficult question.


“Requiring people who are working at minimum wage to have hundreds of thousands (of dollars of coverage) exposes them an extraordinary cost,” he said. “Which, then again, forces them out of the marketplace in having no insurance.”


Englund says consumers can best protect themselves and their families by purchasing adequate uninsured- and underinsured-motorist coverage.


The state Department of Transportation puts the numbers of uninsured drivers at about 13 percent.


“As long as we have the safety responsibility law, we feel like we’re covered,” said Janet Huggins, supervisor of the DOT uninsured motorist unit.


“It’s been very successful. We don’t have a much higher uninsured rate,” she said.


The insurance alliance always testifies against a compulsory law, she said.


“It’s expensive to write policies that may be cancelled a short time later. And that expense is passed along.”


Meanwhile, Sexe is frustrated and angry.


“The uninsured that cause us to take out this extra insurance should be fined the amount we have to pay when they cause an accident,” she said.


“It really isn’t fair. But you don’t have a choice.”


Sexe said she will sue the man who hit her car. He won’t return her calls and hasn’t even said he is sorry.


“I have the rest of my life to get it from (him),” she said.


“I will haunt him like an evil ex-wife.”



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