To read recent Eagle articles about the problem of thousands of people driving with suspended driver's licenses is to understand that Kansas is suffering from an epidemic of irresponsibility. The question is how to stop these scofflaws affordably, or at all.
"We could literally fill the Sedgwick County Jail" with such local drivers, noted Wichita Municipal Court Judge Bryce Abbott to The Eagle.
Yet we can't and won't, even though city and state laws call for jail sentences of five to 90 days for driving without a license.
That's because the county is fighting overcrowding at the jail and trying to stave off another costly expansion. As a result, it needs to devote limited jail space to violent offenders.
Troubling as it is, the fact that 10 percent of the fatal accidents on Kansas streets and highways each year involve some of the 183,000 people whose licenses have been suspended or restricted means that 90 percent do not.
The idea offered in recent days by several letter writers and Opinion Line contributors — take away the cars of such drivers — isn't as workable or just as it sounds.
Even if courts had the authority and governments had the means to impound the cars of unlicensed drivers, that could unfairly penalize any family members who share the need for the vehicle. It also would make it tough for the unlicensed driver to get to work, in turn impairing his ability to pay his $200-$1,000 fine for driving without a license, as well as other bills.
Whether the state yanks a car or a driver's license, the impact on the offender is intended to be the same. But if getting around becomes a choice between relying on a limited public transportation system or the kindness of loved ones and friends, many people will choose a third option: driving unlawfully and hoping they don't get caught.
That can work — until it doesn't, as in the case of Xanthus Smith, who told the court "I was simply attempting to go to work and earning a living" when he drove his parents' car without a license, went the wrong way on I-235, caused a fatal crash and earned four years in prison for involuntary manslaughter and other crimes.
So if the answer isn't taking their liberty or their cars, what is it?
Raising the offenders' fines makes sense, except that "they won't pay. They don't have the money. They're not paying the fines that are in place today," noted state Sen. Les Donovan, R-Wichita.
Indeed, the failure to pay bills, including traffic fines, is among the reasons that licenses are revoked in the first place. In many cases, the driver's failure to be licensed is part of a life of irresponsibility and disrespect for the law and fellow citizens.
As lawmakers and judges seek the best ways to encourage compliance by making life as unpleasant as possible for the scofflaws, the rest of us have little recourse beyond buckling up and driving defensively. A new twist on an old slogan seems apt, too: Friends don't let friends drive unlicensed.