KANSAS CITY, Kan. — A basic necessity of a safe community is safe driving.
Whether you’ve been behind the wheel just a few times, or for years, stepping into the driver’s seat is a risk we take each and every day.
KSHB 41 is taking illegal driving 360, to see what's being done to solve what community leaders call a silent crisis.
In this story we hear from:
- Kansas City, Kansas, police chief Karl Oakman
- Kansas City, Missouri, municipal judge Martina Peterson
- Experienced and new drivers
- KCK PAL, who's helping teens obtain licenses for free
- Project Greenlight, which is helps people with legal fees
KCKPD police chief Karl Oakman
Chief Karl Oakman knows unlicensed drivers exist.
“It is dangerous, because it puts innocent people at risk every day,” Oakman said. “Most accidents are a result of people not understanding the rules of the road.”
Last year, law enforcement in Wyandotte County ticketed 2,800 drivers for driving without a valid license.
In one year, law enforcement in Kansas City, Missouri, ticketed 6,500 drivers.
“We have a significant number,” Oakman said. “We’ve seen fatalities, we’ve had quite a bit of fatalities last year and this year.”
In recent years, nearly half of those ticketed in Kansas City, Kansas, were drivers under 25 years old.
“We will catch people in their early 20’s who never had a driving license and (are) driving since 14 or 15 years old," Oakman said. "Some of it is financial.”
Those reasons can vary — from access, to learning how to drive, to keeping and paying for valid documentation, insurance and tags.
Oakman acknowledged once you get a ticket, the process can be hard to navigate.
“We’ve already reached out to some judges explaining really how difficult it is for someone to go through that process,” he said. “Hopefully we can start to change things.”
Municipal Judge Martina Peterson
One of those judges who want to see change is Martina Peterson.
“Individuals who can’t afford to drive legally or get tickets and don’t know what to do with them,” Peterson said. “They think they are doing the right thing to pay for them and get their licenses suspended.”
She’s working to address issues on the court side of things and look at preventative education.
“By the time they realize their license is suspended, they have to make a choice,” she said. “To either drive illegally to keep their job, keep their home, keep their family in place, or they cannot drive and deal with the consequences financially of how to support themselves because they didn’t plan for this.”
Teresa Kirk was one of those drivers
“I did take that risk,” Kirk said. “I drove illegally with a suspended license and expired plates. My fines added up. We’re not criminals, we’re just poor.”
Project Green Light
Chloe Cooper estimates tens of thousands of people in the Kansas City area drive unlicensed, not because they don’t care, but because of costly fines.
“Not too long ago I was driving illegally, I was a newly single mom and left a severely abusive relationship,” she said.
Cooper said she needed help and it wasn’t there, so she created it for others.
From her struggle, Project Green Light was born, which helps people in Jackson and Wyandotte Counties get on the right side of the law.
The program helps people navigate courts and pays fines for those that qualify.
“Paying for fees associated with car registration, license plate renewals, insurance, driver’s license reinstatement fees and car inspections,” she said.
Since its launch in March, more than 500 people have submitted an application for help.
Oakman says he hopes to partner with Project Green Light.
KCK Police Athletic League (PAL)
Officers Matt Tomasic and Joe Reyes help teach teens to drive for free through the Kansas City, Kansas, Police Athletic League.
Tomasic surveyed 500 urban core teens from KCK to see if they drove illegally.
The survey found things aren't much different with illegal driving among teens.
“Forty percent of the kids were driving without a license," Tomasic said. "They were driving to work, driving to school."
Tomasic says the Kansas City, Kansas, Public Schools district removed its driver education class in the 1990s.
Now, a driver’s education class ranges from $450 to $750 for young drivers trying to get a permit or driver's license.
Tomasic said their program is a first in the country, where officers teach kids how to drive for free.
Teens spend hours and hours in the classroom and on the roads next to police officers, learning about maintenance, taxes and registration.
Oakman says judges are interested in issuing the KCK PAL's driver's ed class instead of fines.
Yulisa Arreola-Campos went through the KCK PAL's driver's ed program after getting an unlicensed ticket.
“I was taking my little sister to go get her medicine and she ended up getting sick,” Arreola-Campos said. “I was driving down Minnesota and I ended up getting a ticket.”
After completing the class, Arreola-Campos was gifted a car, and Tomasic said no one was more deserving.
“She helps raise her siblings, she gets them to school, she works 30 hours a week to help support the family there’s no one who works harder than she does,” Tomasic said.
Tomasic said good driving habits and the importance of positive role models will improve the quality of a teenager's life.
“This is a program that’s fundamentally changing the direction of these kids’ lives,” Tomasic said.
Oakman hopes other police departments model and adopts the program of training teen drivers.
With help and education, many hope to leave unlicensed driving in the rearview mirror.