Wisconsin has the dubious honor of being one of the worst states in the country for drunk drivers, thanks in part to the way state laws handle inebriated motor vehicle operators. The good news is drunk driving fatalities have got down steadily since their peak in the 1970s, and the state no longer ranks at the top for drunk driving fatalities.
Despite the state’s reputation for DUIs, Wisconsin actually has some of the cheapest car insurance premiums in the country. One 2012 study, published in Forbes, places Wisconsin as the 3rd cheapest state in the country, coming in just behind Maine and Iowa with an average annual rate of $987.
The low cost of auto insurance in Wisconsin is likely due in part to the low coverage limits required by state laws.
Required Coverage & Limits
There are just two coverages that are required on all vehicles in Wisconsin:
- Property Damage Liability – Pays for damages to other vehicles and property that you might damage with your own car. The minimum limit is $10,000.
- Bodily Injury Liability – Pays for injuries that you cause to another person when you are at fault for an accident. You must carry at least $25,000 per person and $50,000 per accident in injury liability.
These laws are very relaxed in comparison to many other states. Most states require uninsured motorist coverage, and property damage liability limits in many states are higher. In fact, Wisconsin’s laws did mandate both of these things at one time, but they have since been changed (see notes below).
As a driver in the state, you will probably want to carry more than the bare minimum coverage as you could be held personally liable for injuries and damages you cause above the insurance limits. You may also wish to carry first-party insurance to pay for the damages to your own vehicle. If you lease your car or are making payments on it, this first-party coverage will most likely be required by your lien holder.
Special Notes About Wisconsin Auto Insurance
Wisconsin is a tort state, meaning that the person at fault for an accident is responsible for the injuries of the victim. The victim can take that driver to court to sue for medical expenses or pain and suffering that arise from an auto accident. This means that you are not required to carry personal injury protection (PIP) coverage on your own vehicle since your auto insurance is not expected to always cover your injuries. However, you can purchase medical payments coverage (MedPay) to help with your own healthcare costs after an accident.
Recent Law Changes
The mandatory insurance limits were briefly raised in 2009, but they returned to their former figures in 2011 (Source).
Additionally, the changes in 2011 removed the legal requirement for uninsured motorist coverage. Insurance companies are required to let their customers know that this coverage exists, but drivers are free to reject it. If this happens, the insured accepts the risk that he may be unable to recover medical costs if he’s in an accident with an uninsured motorist.
According to the Wisconsin Department of Transportation, Wisconsin has the highest rate of drunk driving in the country, with over a quarter of drivers reporting in a survey that they had driven under the influence in the previous year.
Despite this, Wisconsin continues to be very lax in its drunk driving laws when compared to other states. Driving while intoxicated is treated more as a traffic violation than a crime in Wisconsin, with the first offense being subject to a $150-300 fine and no threat of confinement. If the driver’s BAC is above 0.15, the vehicle may be fitted with an ignition interlocking device, but this is not always enforced. You can see the full legal ramifications of drunk driving on the Wisconsin Department of Transportation site.
Phone Use/Distracted Driving
Some states prohibit cell phone use while driving or limit it only to hands-free devices. Wisconsin is not so strict.
Drivers with probationary licenses, regardless of age, cannot use cell phones while driving. This also applies to the use of hands-free devices. However, drivers with an unrestricted license are allowed to talk and drive, although it is discouraged due to the risk of distracted driving.
Obviously, it’s difficult to determine from looking at a driver whether or not he is using a probationary license. For this reason, most cell phone infractions are enforced secondarily to other issues, like speeding, after the police officer pulls over the driver.
There is one important distinction for Wisconsin cell phone owners: While talking on the phone is legal for fully licensed drivers in the state, texting while driving is against the law regardless of your age or type of license you carry.
Teen Driving Rules & Laws
To obtain a driver’s license in Wisconsin, you must first complete a driver’s education course, pass the written test and drive for 30 hours with a learner’s permit under the supervision of a licensed adult. You must also be either enrolled in high school or hold a GED; chronically truant students and teens who have dropped out of school cannot obtain a driver’s license in Wisconsin.
Once your driving hours are complete, you can take the driving test. If this is passed, you will receive a probationary license. All new drivers, regardless of age, begin with probationary licenses. For at least nine months, and up to the time you turn 18, you will hold this probationary license.
The license is subject to a few limitations:
- You may only have one under-aged passenger who is not an immediate relative.
- You cannot drive between 12am and 5am unless required for school or work.
- You must wear a seatbelt at all times.
- You must not drink while driving.
- You cannot use a cell phone while driving, unless it’s being used to report an emergency.
Any infractions will lead to an extension of the probationary license. If you drive safely for nine months and do not break any of the above rules, you can graduate to a full, unrestricted license.
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