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Kansas City Police Say Alcohol Is Contributing To A Surge In Fatal Crashes

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Sam Zeff / KCUR 89.3
Kansas City police prepare for a drunk driving wolf pack patrol Friday night near 40th and Main. This night 13 impaired drivers were arrested, according to KCPD.

We hear a lot about the troubling increase of homicides in Kansas City. But fatal crashes are also spiking. More drunk drivers could be to blame.

Police say drunk driving is leading to a surge in fatal crashes this year as 52 people already have died in Kansas City accidents, compared to 36 people a the same time last year, a 44 percent increase.

Three of those crashes happened over the long holiday weekend.

"We're seeing a trend in our fatalities and serious injuries at about 75 percent of impaired drivers in those crashes," said Kansas City Police Sgt. Corey Carlisle.

Carlisle was in charge Friday night of what the Kansas City Police Department calls a wolf pack, a detail of officers dedicated entirely to arresting impaired drivers. The operation included about 30 officers in cars and motorcycles, and the department's mobile DWI bus where those arrested could be processed. KCPD's helicopter was dedicated to the wolf pack so police could avoid a chase, according to Carlisle.

When the wolf pack began, 49 people had died. By Sunday morning there were three more fatalities. A woman died in an ATV accident near 51st and San Raphael north of the river. Another woman died in a head-on crash on Eastwood Trafficway. And an 18-year-old man died when he lost control of his car in south Kansas City.

One of the things we know about the coronavirus pandemic is that people are consuming more alcohol. "So a lot of people don't have things to do. So they're probably socially drinking at home. Then they still have to go to the liquor store," Carlisle said. "They are still are getting on the roadways and driving."

In 2017 Kansas City had 100 fatal crashes, a big and concerning spike for KCPD commanders at the time. The surge that year made Kansas City unique. Across the rest of Missouri in 2017 fatal accidents were actually down.

Not so this year. There have been 440 fatal crashes in Missouri this year compared to 380 this time last year, according to the Missouri State Highway Patrol website. That is a 15 percent jump at a time when MoDOT says traffic volume is down 50 percent due to pandemic stay-at-home orders.

“One of the toughest jobs for a highway patrol trooper is contacting a victim’s next of kin to tell them their son, daughter or parent has been killed in a vehicle crash,” Missouri State Highway Patrol Colonel Eric Olson said in a statement.

Leann Briggs knows what it is like to get such a notification. Her father was killed by a drunk driver in September 2008. As a show of support for police, Briggs was at the wolf pack command post Friday night after leaving work as a nurse. "In many ways, they have become a second family to me," she told KCUR. Briggs is now a member of Mothers Against Drunk Driving. "I have helped with different law enforcement trainings as a victim telling my story."

The wolf pack is paid for with a grant from the State of Missouri. All the officers are working overtime.

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