For Steve Sigle and Dennis Emrich, the night of Aug. 31, 2005, started harmlessly.
It was bowling night.
They were next-door neighbors, best friends, teammates at Northrock Lanes.
One of the two would survive the night.
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The other would become part of a grim statistic: 43 people killed in 2005 in Kansas accidents involving an unlicensed driver.
Each year from 2000 to 2009, about one in 10 of the state's traffic deaths have been people killed in accidents involving unlicensed drivers, Kansas Department of Transportation records show.
In 2008, the latest year for complete data, of the 385 traffic deaths in accidents statewide, 40 involved a driver without a valid license. That same year, 1,482 people suffered injuries in such accidents.
State Sen. Les Donovan, R-Wichita, who has dealt with traffic safety issues for years, said it is an outrage when someone dies or suffers injuries in accidents involving people who shouldn't be driving.
Donovan and Phil Journey, who has handled traffic issues as a defense attorney, legislator and now as a Sedgwick County District Court judge, say the immediate reaction to the problem of unlicensed drivers is to call for impounding more vehicles, raising fines and putting more people in jail.
But when the costs are tallied and weighed, they aren't workable solutions, they say.
"We're always working on a fix," Donovan said.
"It's more than vexing.
"If there's a fix out there that would work, we would know about it."
They say that for the most part it remains a problem in need of a solution.
In a trap on bridge
After bowling and a stop for chicken wings, Sigle, 50, and Emrich, then 56, headed home. As they had many times before, they went south on I-235 in Emrich's white 1998 Chevy pickup.
Sigle sometimes wore a seat belt. That night, riding in the passenger seat, he did not.
Around 10 p.m., as they rode over the Little Arkansas River Bridge on I-235, Sigle shouted a warning.
They both saw the danger.
On the divided-highway bridge, headlights zoomed right at them — a car coming the wrong way.
Emrich felt trapped. With a GMC Yukon to his left, he had no escape.
For reasons still not clear, a white 1992 Mercury Sable station wagon — uninsured and driven by Xanthus Smith, a man who didn't have a driver's license — had veered from the northbound lanes. The station wagon had crossed a grassy median and entered oncoming traffic on the bridge. Witnesses said the station wagon appeared to be going faster than the 65-mph speed limit.
The station wagon and the pickup swerved but hit nearly head-on.
As the bowling buddies' pickup spun, the Yukon hit it on the passenger side.
Sigle was thrown out the window.
He died on the way to the hospital.
It was a day after his 30th wedding anniversary.
No easy solution
The current maximum penalty for driving without a valid license is six months in a county jail and a $1,000 fine, while the typical penalty is five days in jail and a $200 fine, Journey said.
Donovan said: "We do not have enough jails" to house all of the violators. "And we're not going to build enough jails because the cost" is unacceptable to taxpayers.
"Maybe that sounds a little crass and uncaring, but it's not."
As for raising fines, Donovan said, "That sounds reasonable ... but they won't pay. They don't have the money. They're not paying the fines that are in place today." They wouldn't pay higher fines, either, he said.
"How can you punish someone who has nothing to take away?"
'I was very angry'
For days after the crash, Emrich struggled to breathe. Even though he wore safety restraints, the impact caused severe bruising and cuts, and led to fluid building up around his heart and lungs.
When he learned that Smith didn't have a license, he said, "I was very angry."
It was the third time since 1998 that Smith had been caught driving without a license, court records show. Smith — 27 at the time of the crash — would admit that he had never obtained a Kansas license after living in the state for years.
Smith pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter; two counts of aggravated battery for using his parents' car "as a deadly weapon" against Emrich and the driver of the other southbound vehicle — all three felonies. He also pleaded guilty to two misdemeanors: driving without a valid license and operating a vehicle without proof of liability insurance.
Smith was recently released from prison after serving about four years. While in prison, he had exemplary behavior, court documents say.
After serving his prison term, as part of his sentence, he spent about a month in the Sedgwick County Jail.
He is on parole supervision through February 2012. He also has been assigned to serve a year of probation and has to register as a violent offender.
Smith, who did not respond to a request to be interviewed for this article, said in a letter to the court that "it was never my intention to harm anyone on that fateful evening. I was simply attempting to go to work and earning a living. ... I realize that no matter how long I spend incarcerated it cannot take the place of the life lost."
Sigle's wife, Kristy, said much of her anger over the death of her husband comes not just from the fact that Smith should not have been driving.
"This guy has never shown any remorse for what he did," she said.
At his sentencing hearing, when given a chance to speak, "he did not speak at all," she said.
Her husband had become successful buying and managing rental properties after working 27 years for Dillons stores. He had managed stores in Wichita and Dodge City.
"Steve was the kind of person who was a friend to everybody," she said.
She remembers him saying: "I learn something from everybody."
Emrich said his friend was enterprising and not intimidated by challenges. Sigle, using a part of his attic, "built an exercise room all by himself. That's something I would have never tackled," Emrich said.
At the time of his death, Sigle was helping to raise his then 4-year-old grandson, Corbin. Corbin and his grandfather were "very, very close," Kristy Sigle said. Every evening, Sigle read to the boy — Dr. Seuss.
When Sigle came next door to drink coffee with Emrich, Sigle always brought his grandson.
One time, Corbin's hair had been cut shorter than he liked. To make his grandson feel better, Sigle had his hair cut to the same length. That way, their hair would grow out together.
Dealing with problem
Following an Eagle article last week about a Wichita bicyclist who police say was struck and critically injured by a man who had been caught repeatedly driving with a suspended license, some readers suggested that more people's vehicles should be impounded.
Courts have limited authority to impound vehicles as a result of DUI convictions but not with license convictions, said Journey, the District Court judge.
Impoundment poses practical and legal problems, he said.
"We don't have any place to put the cars ... and the procedure is very cumbersome to order the impoundment ... and order a tow truck to pick up the vehicle. I have ordered impoundment in the past, and it's difficult to enforce.
"If all the courts in Sedgwick County impounded all the DUI cars, I think we'd fill up the parking lot of the Kansas Coliseum pretty quickly."
And there are many more cars driven by people who don't have a license, Journey said.
Violators will keep driving "when they can go buy another (car) for $300," he said.
And there is a fairness issue, said Donovan, the state senator. If you take away a car used by a violator, you can deprive innocent family members of transportation.
State budget cuts don't help. Journey said that people can call the Kansas Department of Revenue at 785-296-3671 to see whether their license is suspended, why and what they can do to get it reinstated.
But it's tougher to get through now, he said, because budget cuts resulted in the number being answered only three days a week — Tuesday through Thursday.
Some people lose their license partly because they fail to keep the Department of Revenue and the courts aware of their new address by filing a change-of-address form in a timely manner, Journey said.
Too often drivers who get into trouble let their problems compound by not paying fines, meeting court dates and updating their addresses, said Carmen Alldritt, director of vehicles for the Kansas Department of Revenue, which administers driver's licenses.
"Traffic tickets don't go away," Alldritt said.
"Just take care of it from the beginning."
For people who have let problems pile up, she said, her advice is "start chipping away at some of this."
Another part of the solution is accessible public transportation so people can get to work when they aren't supposed to drive, Journey said.
Some people can qualify for restricted licenses.
Looking for the cause
Moments before the collision on the bridge, a witness saw Smith's station wagon "swerving from side to side and going off the roadway several times," according to a Kansas Highway Patrol investigative report. A witness also said that the station wagon narrowly missed striking a bridge pillar on the North Seneca Street Bridge.
Minutes after the crash on the bridge over the Little Arkansas River, a state trooper found Smith injured, screaming and trapped upside down in the station wagon. It had flipped over and was resting on a guardrail.
Later that night at Via Christi Hospital on St. Francis, the trooper asked Smith what happened. "He stated he didn't know ... ," the report said. Smith said he had not been drinking, and the trooper didn't notice any smell of alcohol. Smith said he was not diabetic.
Testing of a blood sample from Smith would show that he had a breakdown component of marijuana in his system, the report said.
Early the next morning, according to the report, Smith's father and girlfriend, told a trooper that Smith had left a little late for work, five to 10 minutes before the collision. He usually drove himself to his job. He was on his way to work the night shift at a restaurant on North Rock Road.
During an interview a week after the collision, Smith told a trooper that he slept from about 10 a.m. the day of the accident until about 7:30 that night. Then he remembered going north on I-235 and under the K-96 interchange but couldn't recall anything else until he was trapped in the car.
He told the trooper he last smoked marijuana weeks before the crash. The testing indicated the marijuana had been consumed within a couple days of the accident.
He said he felt fine before the accident, had never had seizures and wasn't taking prescription medicine.
Smith also said "he's never thought about suicide or taking his own life," the trooper wrote.
Can he drive again?
During the interview with the trooper, Smith also said he had never had a driver's license.
He said that to get a Kansas license, he would have needed his Iowa birth certificate, but that required a photo ID.
Smith also said he couldn't afford insurance.
According to the Department of Revenue, Smith has an indefinite license suspension but is eligible for a license if he meets requirements including showing proof of insurance.
In his recent letter to the court, Smith said he has "solid transportation" from a licensed and insured driver — his son's mother — and that "she will provide me with my transportation needs until I can gain legal means of transportation for myself."