High rate of unlicensed drivers are driving under the radar

NOW: High rate of unlicensed drivers are driving under the radar

SOUTH BEND, Ind.-- Across the state, unlicensed drivers are getting behind the wheel and many are putting you and your family at risk. 

Turns out, a record number of drivers are pulled over without licenses across Michiana. 

How are they getting away with it, and what’s being done to stop it?

On january 26th, 35-year-old Mary Amiel's world changed forever.

"It just came out of nowhere, the guy just came straight across, it was so unexpected," said Mary Amiel. I don’t even remember, I think I might’ve blacked out or something because all i remember is that and being in the ambulance.”

She and her mother, 60-year-old Sherry Amiel, were traveling down Bremen highway in Mishawaka after bible study and were on their way to the gym—but they never made it.

“They had like 6 doctors come in, like three on each side of the bed. They told me she didn’t make it," said Amiel.

A car crossed the center lane into northbound traffic and crashed into them, head on. Leaving her with a shattered ankle, broken wrist and without her beloved mother Sherry.

Investigators say the man behind the other wheel was 33-year-old Berrien Springs native, Alan Tarchala. He doesn't have a valid driver's license.

Tarchala was arrested on an outstanding warrant for driving while suspended, and pleaded guilty on February first.

“People think that they’re fine driving like that, but you don’t know. You’re going to end up crashing into someone and what it’s going to cost that family. There’s nothing you can do to refix it, you know,” said Amiel.

We found this problem extends well past St. Joseph county.

 Accoridng to the latest data given to ABC 57 from Indiana State Police, out of the 92 counties in Indiana, St. Joe has the 5th highest number of people pulled over and ticketed for driving without a license. 700 people got infractions in 2018.

The issue is even worse in Elkhart county.

It clocked in at number three in the state with 905 drivers pulled over, then ticketed for unlicensed driving-- only behind Lake and Marion counties.

To put that into perspective --- Elkhart county has almost five times fewer people than Marion county.

There are several reasons this is happening. 

For one, there are ways unlicensed drivers can fly under the radar, legally.

Say hello to nonstandard insurance agencies.

“Non-standard is really for people looking to get back on their feet, who’ve had a speeding ticket, a violation, driving while suspended,” said non-standard insurance agent, Travis Hout.

If someone with a risky driving history wanted to insure their car, they can do so without a license.

"So there’s a lot of people who inevitably get insurance but then really skate through the process and stay under the radar while driving and getting their car registered and having insurance," said Hout.

If you hold a nonstandard insurance policy, the more drivers get into accidents, the more you pay.

“They have a couple bad claims a year, they’re not going to take that loss, they’re going to put it on the customers. If there's an uptick in bananas at Wal-mart, they're not going to absorb that. They're going to make bananas go up," said Hout. 

The same goes for those with standard insurance polices like State Farm or Geico.

In Indiana, 15 percent of drivers are uninsured.

That's causing even more stress for people like Mary. According to the police report, Tarchala was driving a car that was insured under a different name. Leaving her with mounting grief and now mounting debt.

“I’m getting bills of like towing—a 9 hundred dollar bill that i never should have had to pay or should have to pay because obviously they said it's not my fault."

ABC 57's research found there's another reason there are so many unlicensed drivers in Michiana, especially in Elkhart county.

Authorities say people are just trying to make a living.

“They need to support themselves and their families. If they’re going to work, they’re going to have to find a way to get there," said Elkhart County Sheriff Patrol Commander, Michael Culp.

Last year, deputies there pulled over 361 of the county’s 905 unlicensed drivers.

"Tens of thousands of people come in every day," said Culp.

About 60 percent of them were Hispanic and the majority were men. 

The Hispanic population only makes up about 16 percent of people living in Elkhart county.

They have the labor, we have the jobs. Talk about how important the Hispanic community is to Goshen, Elkhart community, the state of Indiana, the entire nation," said immigration attorney, Paul Gresk.

Immigration attorney Paul Gresk represents several drivers -- many unlicensed who get pulled over in Elkhart county.

He says many are undocumented and the fear of deportation makes matters worse.

“So we have laws to punish people for driving without a license but we get into survival mode where people have to get to work. Ask yourself, put yourself in that same position, you have to get to work. What are you going to do to provide for your family? You’re going to do what it takes," said Gresk.

So what is the state doing to reduce the number of unlicensed drivers?

Right now, bill 5-1-1 is in the works. It could help the undocumented obtain licenses. It's a resolution already adopted by 12 other states.

I spoke with to the bill’s author state Senator David Niezgodski. He represents part of St. Joseph county including South Bend and Mishawaka.

“If they’re prevented from doing that, that hinders their ability to be productive members of our community. This also means they’re also not insured. You’re going to give them the opportunity if you’re going to have a drivers card that’s a proof of identification. They have to have that financial responsibility of insurance also and that is within the legislation that I have.”

Right now, that bill has until February 21st to be scheduled to be heard by a chairman.

If not, it won’t be considered again until next year.

In the meantime, police say there's not much they can do until an unlicensed driver commits a traffic violation or gets in a crash.

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