Wichita Safety experts say Kansas could get some of its worst drivers off the road by suspending the licenses of repeat offenders and expanding its definition of "moving violations."
Driver improvement clinics and a graduated licensing system for teen-agers could also help.
State officials already are increasing the penalties for repeat offenders, but some warn that changes in the system won't come cheaply or without opposition.
"The bottom line is how much does it cost to do it," said state Rep. George Dean, D-Wichita. He was among several officials surprised to learn that Kansas isn't enforcing a law allowing the suspension of any motorist who has three moving violations in a year.
Questions about Kansas' licensing system surfaced after The Wichita Eagle, using the Kansas Department of Transportation's accident database, found that an unusually large number of accidents involved only a small percentage of drivers. Some of the drivers were ticketed but continued to drive.
Dean, who served four years on the House Transportation Committee, said legislators haven't monitored the state licensing system closely.
"We were more concerned with putting down concrete," he said. "It appears we haven't been paying enough attention."
Perhaps the easiest way to toughen the state's driving laws would be to suspend the licenses of motorists who repeatedly break traffic laws, safety experts said.
"Repetitive behavior is certainly something states should be clamping down on," said Henry Jasny, general counsel for Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, a Washington, D.C.-based group.
State law allows suspensions for three moving violations in a year, but the state's driver control office has paid less attention to routine traffic infractions, dedicating more resources to suspending the licenses of drunken drivers and those who don't pay traffic fines.
Under the current system, a third conviction for a simple infraction, such as running a red light or stop sign, generates no response from the state. A fourth prompts a warning letter.
If a fifth violation occurs, driving privileges are restricted for 30 days, except for driving to work or school. The sixth and subsequent violations result in additional 30-day restrictions.
"It's been this way for at least a decade," said Sheila Walker, who became director of the Division of Motor Vehicles in April 1999.
The state restricted just 265 licenses last year for excessive moving violations. It suspended more than 93,000 licenses overall, most for alcohol-related offenses or unpaid traffic tickets.
But the lenient approach could end soon. Soon after Walker took office, she and other Division of Motor Vehicles administrators reviewed their policies and decided it was time to scrap the five-ticket-per-year rule.
Walker said the new plan, if approved by state officials, would send warning notices after a driver's third conviction, issue a 30-day restriction after the fourth and impose a 90-day suspension after the fifth. A one-year suspension would be imposed on a driver with six violations in a year.
Walker said changes in the policy are still several months away, and she didn't know how many drivers would be affected if the changes were adopted.
The new plan doesn't address the issue of tickets for inattentive driving, which police in several cities use as a catch-all citation for motorists who cause accidents, Walker said.
Her office is authorized to suspend licenses only of drivers who violate state driving laws, Walker said. Unless the Kansas Legislature outlaws inattentive driving, she said, her office is powerless to discipline drivers who are ticketed for it.
Rep. Dean said mandatory driver improvement clinics for those with too many tickets probably ought to be reinstated, but not all safety experts agree.
"There are some questions about whether driver improvement schools actually do improve drivers," said Stephanie Faul, communications director for AAA's Foundation for Traffic Safety. "The studies are kind of all over the map."