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State of Driving: Wisconsin

Emily Guy Birken

Friendliness in Wisconsin is something you can count on, even when you are driving. The convivial residents of America’s Dairy Land will not only heartily welcome you to any festival, gathering, or party with open arms and a selection of beer and cheese, but they will also treat you courteously on the road. According to Milwaukee resident Natalie LaRocque, “drivers in Wisconsin tend to be pretty polite. Everyone just takes turns.”

However, just because Wisconsinites tend to be polite drivers does not mean that getting behind the wheel in the Badger State is without dangers. There are specific hazards that any driver may face while on the road in Wisconsin, and it pays to know exactly what you can expect before you go for a drive. Here’s what you need to know about the unique challenges and potential risks of driving in Wisconsin:

History, Motorcycles, and Festivals: Wisconsin’s Car Culture

Detroit has long been the center of American auto manufacturing, but Wisconsin was home to a number of early automobile manufacturers when the industry was still in its infancy. Nash Motors is perhaps the most famous car brand built entirely in Wisconsin, and its Kenosha plant was the largest producer of automobiles outside of Detroit in the 1910s.

Cars were not the only motor vehicles designed and produced in Wisconsin. As of 1901, William S. Harley of Milwaukee was beginning to design engines that could fit into a bicycle frame—leading to the creation of the iconic Harley-Davidson motorcycles that still dominate the international heavyweight motorcycle market to this day.

Harley-Davidson’s presence helps to explain what Milwaukee resident Matt Borden has noticed about the prevalence of motorcycles in Wisconsin: “We probably have more motorcycles than most northern states, especially every five years on Harley-Davidson anniversaries.” Wisconsinites are justly proud of their local brand, and welcome fellow riders to the state regularly.

The local love for cars, motorcycles, and other vehicles even extends to the numerous festivals held throughout the state. According to Borden, “Every little town has its own festival—Cheese Days, Rutabaga Festival, Walleye Weekend—and it seems like every single one has a car show and a parade. So no matter where you live in the state, there’s a chance to show off or see whatever kind of vehicle you’re into.”

Miles Driven in Wisconsin

Wisconsites like to drive more than the average American. According to 2014 data compiled by the U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Highway Administration, the average American driver only puts 13,476 miles on his or her car per year, whereas the average Wisconsite logs 15,188 miles behind the wheel.

What spurs all this extra driving? The vacation and festival culture may have something to do with it. Northern Wisconsin is a summer vacation destination, and the scenic Door County which has 250 miles of shoreline along lake Michigan, sees its summer population swell to nearly 10 times its year-round size.

In addition, the social culture of the state, which includes sporting events, live music, and hunting, means that residents in this state are more likely to drive year round—even in the dead of winter—rather than miss their favorite activities. Add all of this to the less-than-robust public transit system, which only 2% of commuters in Wisconsin use, and it’s understandable why Wisconsin cars rack up the miles.

All of those extra miles can add to the cost of driving, since the more you drive, the more regular and irregular maintenance and repairs your car will need. According to the financial blog My Money Design, such maintenance costs approximately $0.26/mile, which means 15,188 miles per year will cost approximately $3,950 in annual maintenance on your car.

The state of Wisconsin’s roads can also add to your vehicle maintenance costs. The Washington Post reported in 2015 that a full 39 percent of Wisconsin’s roads received a poor rating, which is defined as roads with “so many major ruts, cracks, and potholes that they can’t simply be resurfaced—they need to be completely rebuilt.” The Post calculated that Wisconsin drivers will pay an additional $529 per year in vehicle maintenance costs because of these poor roads.

According to Borden, this helps explain the long tradition of “winter beater” cars. “This may be a dying tradition, but for a long time Wisconsinites would drive a beater car during the winter and garage the nice cars to preserve them from the damages of salt and winter road hazards.”

The Cost of a Fill-Up

Filling your tank in Wisconsin tends to be slightly cheaper than in most states. According to AAA, as of May 10, 2017, the average national cost of a gallon of regular unleaded was $2.360 per gallon, while Wisconsinites were paying only $2.275 per gallon on average. The price of gas is remarkably consistent across the state, only varying from a low of $2.272 in Madison to a high of $2.277 in Eau Claire.

The relatively low cost of gas in Wisconsin may mean more drivers on the road, since more people can afford to fill up. This is important to remember when you get behind the wheel, since more cars on the road increases the likelihood of accidents.

The Unemployment Rate

The national unemployment has fallen to 4.4 percent as of April 2017, but Wisconsin is doing even better than America as a whole, with an incredibly low unemployment rate of 3.4 percent. This is great news for Wisconsinites, but very low unemployment can have a profound effect on driving behavior in the state.

This is partially due to the fact that employed individuals are more likely to drive on a daily basis in order to commute to work. In Wisconsin, commutes tend to be relatively short, with an average of 21.7 minutes each way, which is below the national average commute time of 25.5 minutes each way.

However, commutes do not account for all of the additional driving working Wisconsinites engage in. Higher employment is also an indication of a stronger economy, which means people are enjoying more disposable income—and therefore driving more to go out to dinner, shop, go on vacation, or attend sporting events or festivals.

Rural vs. Urban Driving

Despite the fact that 70.2 percent of Wisconsinites live in urban areas, residents tend to drive more in rural areas of the state than urban areas. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, an impressive 69.2 percent of vehicle miles traveled in Wisconsin are driven in rural areas.

Though you might assume that rural driving is less dangerous than urban driving, since there are fewer cars on the road in rural areas, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has calculated that the rate of car crash deaths per 100 million miles traveled is 2.6 times higher in rural areas compared to urban areas across the country. While you are more likely to get into an accident of some kind in an urban driving environment, such an accident is also more likely to be survivable since it will generally be at a lower speed.

However, as of 2015, nearly 64 percent of Wisconsin’s traffic fatalities—360 of the 566 total for the year—occurred in rural areas. This is a somewhat lower fatality rate than you might expect for rural areas in the state considering the large number of vehicle miles traveled outside of the city. Anne Morrissy of Williams Bay, Wisconsin, attributes some of this higher-than-expected safety in rural areas to the high ratio of traffic cops-to-population in rural areas: “You WILL get caught speeding in rural Wisconsin and you WILL get ticketed. This means that for most of my life, rural Wisconsin drivers have been very patient and obedient drivers.”

Though fatal rural accidents are somewhat less prevalent in Wisconsin compared to the American average, there are other serious hazards for drivers. In particular, according to Morrissy, “drunk driving continues to be a problem despite a 20-year-long campaign to rein it in, so I am always extra cautious when driving on rural Wisconsin roads anytime from roughly dinner to an hour after bar time.” The statistics bear out her observation—over 33 percent of Wisconsin fatal accidents involved alcohol, and 3.1 percent of drivers in Wisconsin admitted to driving drunk in the past month, compared to only 1.9 percent of drivers nationally.

Distracted Driving

Although Wisconsin continues to have a major problem with drunk driving , distracted driving is also a serious cause for concern. Distractions while you are driving can include anything that takes your focus from the road, but the term is most commonly used for drivers who are texting or otherwise inappropriately using their phones behind the wheel.

As of 2015, there were 24,089 car crashes related to distracted driving in the state of Wisconsin.

In order to combat the problem of distracted driving, state legislature has put several laws into effect that punish distracted drivers. The first law, which has been in place since 2010, makes it illegal for any driver to text while driving. First-time offenders can expect to receive a ticket and pay a $20 fine if they are caught texting and driving, but subsequent offenses will have higher penalties, up to $400.

In addition, as of October 2016, all handheld cell phone use is prohibited while driving through a work zone. You can expect to pay a $40 fee for the first offense, and a $100 fee with each subsequent offense.

Finally, novice drivers—which includes those on instruction permits or those on probationary teen licenses—are completely banned from using handheld or hands-free cell phone devices while driving.

Teen Drivers in the Badger State

The ban on cell phone use among novice drivers in Wisconsin is just one of the ways that the state’s laws are set up in order to help teenagers be safer behind the wheel. In addition to commonsense regulations on cell phone use, teenagers also need supervision and support to learn the complex skills necessary for driving safety. This is why Wisconsin uses a graduated licensing program for new drivers. Before qualifying for a full license at age 18, Wisconsin teenagers must first go through the following steps:

  • Instruction Permit—Upon reaching age 15 1/2, teens may apply for an instruction permit (which is also commonly called “temps”). To receive the permit, teens must pass a knowledge test and a vision screening, and either be enrolled in or have completed a driver training course. Teens must also either be enrolled in high school or have a high school diploma to receive a permit. The instruction permit is valid for up to 12 months, but it can be extended if necessary, and it must be held for a minimum of 6 months. Teens may only drive on their permit with a fully licensed adult driver.
  • Probationary Driver’s License—As of age 16, a Wisconsin teen may apply for a probationary license, provided he or she has held a permit for at least 6 months, has completed a driver education course, and has accumulated at least 30 hours of supervised driving practice, at least 10 of which must be at night. On the probationary license, teens may not drive between the hours of midnight and 5 a.m., and teens may not have more than one passenger under the age of 18.

Automobile Insurance

Wisconsin drivers are legally required to carry automobile insurance with the following minimum liability coverage:

  • $25,000 for injury or death of one person
  • $50,000 for injury or death of two or more people
  • $10,000 for property damage

Wisconsin law also requires drivers to carry uninsured motorist coverage with a minimum limit of $25,000 for one person and $50,000 for two or more people for bodily injury coverage. A total of 11.7 percent of Wisconsin motorists are uninsured, so many drivers will choose to purchase more than the minimum coverage to make sure they are taken care of if they get into a car accident with an uninsured driver.

Drivers who cannot provide proof of insurance at a traffic stop of after an accident may face a $10 fine, but driving without insurance at all can result in a fine of up to $500.

The State of Driving in Wisconsin

The friendly welcome you get in Wisconsin encompasses the courteous driving attitudes you’ll see on the road. But just because Badger State drivers are more likely to use a turn signal and let you merge does not mean the road is always safe. Knowing just what you can expect when you get behind the wheel in Wisconsin will help allow you to make the best and safest decisions on the road.

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