Uninsured Wisconsin drivers leave crash victims with the bill

Posted at 10:24 PM, Mar 13, 2018
and last updated 2018-03-13 23:24:54-04

Of all the drivers on the road in Waukesha County, Shawn Masters had to cross paths with one who wasn't paying attention.

"At the time, I couldn't even comprehend what was going on. What just happened -- did my car blow up," Masters said, recalling the day that inattentive driver sent his world spinning.

In January of 2017, Masters was driving with his wife and daughters on Bluemound Road in Waukesha.

The other car ran a red light, destroying their van in a terrifying crash.

"To be completely blindsided is one of the worst feelings I've ever felt in my life," he said.

What felt even worse was his wife's head. It slammed into the pillar next to the passenger seat.

She went to the hospital in an ambulance, and heard some bad news.

"When I was in the ambulance, there was discussion at the time they didn’t' have insurance," Jessica Halaska said.

Because Shawn and Jessica had only the minimum insurance on their 11-year-old van, they would be on the hook for everything.

Car rental, medical bills, replacing their daughters' car seats were just the beginning. After finding a new car, they were out nearly $20,000.

"The expenses, not including medical, just rack up exponentially, very quickly," Jessica said.

State Rep. Joe Sanfelippo wants to help people like Shawn and Jessica.

He did it by drafting a bill he's tried to pass the last two sessions.

It would strengthen existing law requiring drivers to have auto insurance. Sanfelippo wants steeper fines for drivers caught without insurance and force them to prove they're covered before driving privileges are reinstated.

"It's really a slap in the face to every citizen in this state who follows the law and purchases insurance," he said.

But Sanfelippo's fellow Republicans never even let his bill come up for a hearing, even though it was a key safety issue in the party's "Forward Agenda."

"So it's rather mystifying why we're having such a problem getting this bill passed so we actually have some teeth in the law and the law does some good," he said.

Sanfelippo is trying to solve a problem that just keeps getting worse.

When the I-TEAM first looked at this problem in 2014, there were 14,510 crashes across Wisconsin involving an uninsured driver.

For 2017, uninsured drivers were involved in more than 18,000 crashes.

61 percent of them - more than 11,000 - happened in right here in southeast Wisconsin.

The I-TEAM asked Assembly Speaker Robin Vos why this bill never even had a hearing.

His spokeswoman commended Sanfelippo's work, and explained it's failure by explaining "the bill didn't garner enough support to make it through the committee process."

Joe Sanfelippo will just try again.

"Most definitely because this is a problem that's not going away. It's getting worse," he said.

In the meantime, uninsured drivers in Wisconsin still have little incentive to obey the law.             

Which leaves victims like Shawn and Jessica frustrated with a system that lets it happen.

"People need to be held accountable. And if you're not held accountable for your actions, then the message you're sending is it's okay to not follow the laws," Jessica said.