What is happening in Wisconsin?

It’s easy to say what the law is – legislatures must write it down and publish it for all to read – but harder to live with its consequences. Looking across the US, all but three states have laws setting mandatory insurance levels for all vehicles on the road. Almost without exception, all these states also have laws making it a crime to drive a vehicle on a public road without a valid policy in force. This gives all drivers a simple choice. Either carry the minimum insurance or risk fines and, in some states, the confiscation of the vehicle. All these laws are a compromise between the interests of drivers and the interests of people who may be injured in traffic accidents. The more Libertarian view is personal responsibility. If you do something, you should be prepared for the consequences. That would mean every driver having enough cash in the bank to pay out every time their driving injures someone else or damages their property. But not everyone can afford to pay the medical costs for treating those they injure. This would be seriously unfair. Suppose you were walking along the sidewalk and a car knocks you down. Surely you should not have to pay your own medical costs? The answer is mandatory insurance so there is always some money to pay out to the innocent victims.

Most people agree this is a good idea but there’s a problem. Almost all these states set the mandatory amount forty or fifty years ago. What was an adequate amount then is a drop in the ocean today. So this February, Wisconsin bit the bullet and increased the mandatory rates both for liability insurance and for insurance against uninsured or underinsured drivers. The governor signed the bill into law and everyone sat back and awaited the results. The mail boxes have recently experienced a flood of renewal notices showing significantly higher premiums for the mandatory minimum cover. Needless to say, the Republicans are now promoting a bill to repeal the law making liability insurance mandatory. As it stands, about 14% of all drivers are uninsured. These premium increases during a recession are likely to increase this percentage significantly.

This review of the minimum amounts after forty years was perfectly reasonable. Most other states will have to follow Wisconsin’s example sooner or later. It’s just not acceptable to have such low minimums when medical and repair costs have risen so sharply. But the timing is unfortunate. Insurers had invested their funds in the stock and bond markets. When the recession hit, they lost a hefty slice of their capital reserves. There’s another law requiring insurers to have enough capital in hand to pay out all the expected claims. To build their capital back up to the required levels, all insurers are therefore raising their premium rates. Each state’s insurance department is insisting on putting more money into the reserves. This means you must shop around. Get auto insurance quotes from as many companies as possible to find the best prices. Not all companies lost heavily. Equally, the smaller companies will have to raise the cash from smaller groups of policy holders, i.e. more from each individual. So get the maximum possible number of auto insurance quotes to survey the market before buying.