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Half of Kansas City's traffic deaths in the last few years happened on these 10 streets

A pedestrian waits to cross 31st Street at a six-way intersection. The intersection, Van Brunt Boulevard and 31st Street, is rated one of the most dangerous in Kansas City.
Chase Castor
/
The Beacon
A pedestrian waits to cross 31st Street at a six-way intersection. The intersection, Van Brunt Boulevard and 31st Street, is rated one of the most dangerous in Kansas City.

Nearly 200 people died in Kansas City car crashes in 2022 and 2023. The numbers suggest that high speeds and intersections, particularly on Truman Road, pose the greatest danger.

An 18-year-old died when he was thrown from a car days after his high school graduation. A grandmother was killed when she was struck by a car while walking to buy groceries at Aldi. Three teenage girls died when their car hit a tree.

The car crashes were almost as predictable as they were tragic.

The recent high school grad was the third person killed in a month in a mile-long stretch of Northwest 68th Street where drivers hit cars turning left.

Michelle Dunmore’s fatal grocery run came along a stretch of Troost Avenue with no sidewalks, where another pedestrian had been killed less than two years earlier.

And one year before those three teenage girls died on Emanuel Cleaver II Boulevard, a city-led study called it one of Kansas City’s most dangerous roads.

In Kansas City, you’re more likely to die in car crashes than in almost every other major U.S. city. Nearly 200 people died on Kansas City streets in 2022 and 2023.

Traffic safety experts say it’s not because we’re terrible drivers. Rather, they point to poorly designed roads that encourage speeding and make car crashes deadlier.

The Beacon analyzed 190 traffic deaths from 2022 and 2023 and found that a quarter of them happened on just five roads. More than half of all the pedestrian deaths happened east of Troost Avenue, the historic economic and racial dividing line in Kansas City created by racist housing practices.

Over the next two weeks, The Beacon will take a closer look at three different ways that policymakers are trying to make Kansas City’s roads safer. But first, here’s what the numbers tell us.

A new approach to traffic safety

The yearly rate of traffic fatalities in Kansas City — around 18 deaths per 100,000 people — is more than triple the rate in Australia and eight times the rate in Sweden. It’s the leading cause of death for people younger than 54 in the United States.

“It’s not that the Swedes and the Australians are better drivers than us,” said Leah Shahum, who leads the Vision Zero Network that aims to eliminate traffic deaths. “That’s not true. It’s that they have designed (safer) systems.”

Kansas City isn’t the worst in the country. Memphis is twice as dangerous. But we’re in the top 10.

Shahum is at the forefront of a new way of thinking about traffic safety, called the safe systems approach. Where police officers and some traffic engineers would traditionally blame reckless drivers for car crashes, Shahum and her peers focus on the roads that tempt us to drive too fast, too casually and too recklessly.

“Humans are not perfect,” said Julia Griswold, the director of the University of California-Berkeley’s traffic safety research center. “So we can’t count on everyone to behave perfectly.”

She said traffic engineers can do things like narrow roads to slow down drivers or create bike lanes to shield bicyclists and pedestrians from cars.

Those design changes don’t make car crashes disappear, but they make them less deadly.

And while crash data can be helpful, Griswold said decision-makers shouldn’t wait for a crash to happen before making changes.

“Crashes are relatively rare events,” she said. “There’s always that element of chance, so your most dangerous locations might not be where you had a crash in the last few years.”

Instead, experts can use that data to figure out the types of streets that pose the most danger, then make changes to all of the roads that fit that profile.

For instance, Kansas City drivers frequently collide on four-lane roads (two lanes in each direction). So the city is proactively trying to make changes to many of those roads, even if they haven’t seen a crash recently.

Five deadly roads

A fifth of Kansas City’s 190 traffic deaths in 2022 and 2023 occurred on just five roads: Truman Road, Independence Avenue, Prospect Avenue, Troost Avenue and Ward Parkway.

Aside from highways — which on their own made up nearly a third of the city’s fatalities — Truman Road was the most dangerous, killing 12 people.

All of those roads are a part of what City Hall calls a “high injury network.” A 2022 study said that they’re the most likely to kill or maim drivers, pedestrians and bicyclists, making them a top priority for upgrades. Ward Parkway is slightly lower priority than the others.

Other roads on that list include U.S. 71, Emanuel Cleaver II Boulevard, 39th Street, Gregory Boulevard and 23rd Street Trafficway.

Kansas City is already planning to remove lanes from Emanuel Cleaver II Boulevard, 23rd Street Trafficway and Gregory Boulevard as part of this year’s $4 million investment in traffic safety upgrades.

That strategy, called a road diet, aims to discourage drivers from speeding.

Walking is dangerous

Another quarter of Kansas City’s traffic deaths occurred among pedestrians and bicyclists — 46 people who were biking to work or walking to the grocery store. A majority of those deaths occurred east of Troost Avenue and in the historic Northeast.

A dozen of those pedestrians died on interstate highways, including five drivers who left their cars.

Michael Kelley, the policy director for BikeWalkKC, is concerned that pedestrian and bicyclist deaths are increasing faster than driver fatalities. Pedestrian deaths are now at a 40-year high.

Nationwide, Black pedestrians in particular are more than twice as likely to be killed by a car than white pedestrians. Black bicyclists are more than four times as likely to be killed by a car than white bicyclists.

Black residents make up 40% of Kansas City’s pedestrian fatalities, but they’re only 26% of the city’s population.

Part of the reason for that is because when the United States was designing its highway system, city planners intentionally cut those highways through Black and Latino neighborhoods to make it harder to cross lines of segregation.

The two main examples in Kansas City are U.S. 71, which cuts through historically redlined Black neighborhoods, and Interstate 35, which separates the Westside neighborhood from the rest of downtown.

So while it might seem odd that a pedestrian would want to cross a busy highway, Kelley said those pedestrians are often left with no other option.

“We may see it as crazy, but it’s also a matter of, ‘If I don’t cross that road, then I can’t get my prescription,’” he said. “It’s important to consider those elements that may not show up in a police report.”

Red lights and stop signs

If you watch certain traffic intersections for a few minutes, it’s easy to see why they’re some of the city’s worst hot spots for deadly crashes.

Gutsy drivers turn left in front of speeding cars or weave around backed-up turn lanes. A total of 45 people were killed at intersections in 2022 and 2023.

The most common reason was because a driver ran a red light.

In Kansas City’s 2022 study, researchers said the most dangerous intersections include Prospect Avenue and 63rd Street, Shoal Creek Parkway and Missouri 152, and 31st Street and Van Brunt Boulevard.

Some minor changes, researchers said, could fix some of those problems. The city could adjust the yellow light timing, create dedicated left-turn lanes or widen the curb at traffic signals to shorten the crosswalk and force cars to slow down.

Other solutions, like replacing signals with roundabouts or installing automatic cameras, require more money and carefully worded legislation.

Shahum, the advocate who leads the Vision Zero Network, sees evidence that those things work. And that they actually could bring dramatic change.

Hoboken, New Jersey, a city of about 60,000 people, hasn’t had a single traffic death in seven years.

“Nations have done this before,” Shahum said. “Cities have done this before.”

This story was originally published by The Beacon, a fellow member of the KC Media Collective.

Josh Merchant is The Kansas City Beacon's local government reporter.
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