CBS 58 Investigates: Hidden Crash Costs
WISCONSIN (CBS 58) -- Wisconsin drivers who hit potholes and wreck their cars will have to foot the repair bill.
Lawmakers eliminated what’s known as pothole liability for governments nearly a decade ago. But a CBS 58 investigation found drivers who wreck government property have to pay up.
Driver Brandon Conklin said, “I’m so glad that the guardrail's put in place, because looking at the scene the next day, if it wasn’t there, I’d probably be a quadriplegic or dead.”
Conklin walked away from a close call this past June. He was driving home from work on State Highway 33.
“Going about 55 and out of nowhere, hard right jerk right into the guardrail,” he said.
Police snapped photos of the damage. Conklin believed either a tie rod or ball joint on his car failed. He was left with a totaled car and about a month later, a $1,000 bill for the guardrail he hit.
Investigative Reporter Mark Stevens asked, “What happened when you opened that letter?”
Conklin said, “I was furious and I pretty much just threw it in the garbage.”
He hasn’t paid up because he feels like he’s being double billed.
“That's what I paid DMV fees for, that's why they keep going up every year," Conklin said. "That's why I pay taxes. And now I'm paying this personally.”
He’s far from alone. Wisconsin collected $3.9 million from motorists who damaged state roads in 2018. State data shows collections have increased in recent years.
CBS 58 Investigates reviewed county repair orders across southeast Wisconsin. They show a driver paid $7,000 to fix a guardrail in Jefferson County. Another driver paid $417 for a traffic sign in Sheboygan County. The costs add up quickly. In 2018, drivers paid $823,000 for damage in Milwaukee County and $377,000 in Waukesha County.
And even though governments expected to save money after the state eliminated pothole liability a decade ago, they still rely on drivers and insurance companies coughing up cash to pay for damage that must be fixed.
Waukesha County Highway Operations Manager Bob Rauchle said, “if the state doesn't have funds with which to pay us to repair that, then it's not going to get repaired.”
Rauchle said Waukesha, like every other county, has to fix state highways and keep them safe.
States surrounding Wisconsin follow similar practices. Iowa said it’s a simple liability issue. Drivers have to pay for damaging other drivers' cars, why wouldn’t they be responsible for damaging government property along the highway?
"Why should I pay if you don't take care of your car when you cause that damage?” Rauchle asked.
But Conklin believes exceptions should be made, depending on who is at fault for the crash.
“It wasn't like I was drunk," Conklin said. "It wasn't like I was doing something that was a moving violation or something that I wasn't supposed to be doing. It's there for safety purposes and tax dollars and everything else. That's what it pays for, at least that's how I see it.”
Some repairs are covered by tax dollars. In cases of hit-and-runs the state has no one to bill, leaving less money to cover other projects.