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Traffic deaths in the U.S. hit a 20-year high. A Kansas City father of 10 is among the latest

Charles Criniere pictured with his wife Magan Criniere at his funeral
Frank Morris
A picture of Charles Criniere and his wife, Magan Criniere, displayed at his funeral.

As of the end of August, Kansas City traffic fatalities were up 25% over a year earlier. Nationwide, deaths are at a 20-year high, a surge not seen among any other developed countries.

On a quiet stretch of road near Longview Lake just before dawn on the last Saturday in August, a hit-and-run driver killed Charles Criniere, taking a husband from his wife and a father from his 10 children. Criniere was out for his regular weekly bike ride.

He wasn’t the first person to die in traffic that morning and he wouldn’t be the last. U.S. traffic fatalities are running at a 20-year high. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that car and truck crashes killed almost 43,000 Americans last year.

“That's like a regional jet crashing every day, a regional jet carrying 125 people crashing every single day of last year,” says Mark Chung, an executive vice president at the National Safety Council.

The 10.5% jump in deaths last year was the worst increase on record. And the roadway death toll continues to climb.

The grim spike comes after a long decline beginning in the 1970s, following major advances in vehicle safety features, road design and seatbelt compliance.

“It's a massive reversal from improvements that have been made on the roads over the years,” says Cathy Chase, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety.

Chase says the COVID-19 pandemic was behind the change.

“Our roadways were turned into racetracks and excessive speed really went out up through the roof and more people were driving while impaired,” Chase says.

She says bad habits motorists picked up during the pandemic have persisted, even as COVID restrictions have eased. So, on average, people are driving faster and more recklessly, and now, unlike at the height of the pandemic, there are more cars on the road to hit.

Kansas City Police Sgt. Corey Carlisle sees the results. Carlisle says most deadly crashes used to happen on major highways. Now, he says, they’re common on city streets.

“We're stopping people going 120 — I mean that's if they stop. So the new trend is high speeds, not stopping for the police,” Carlisle says.

Police in Kansas City, as is the case in many other cities, are short-staffed. They’re making fewer stops. And for safety’s sake, they won’t get into a high-speed chase just for a traffic violation.

But Carlisle says Kansas City cops are making close to triple the number of impaired driving arrests that they were making before the pandemic. And they’re catching people drinking more and smoking stronger marijuana than in the past.

Cops are also seeing a lot more drivers come back positive for the synthetic opioid fentanyl, often in combination with other drugs like PCP and heroin.

As of the end of August, Kansas City traffic fatalities were up 25% over a year earlier. But here the spike in traffic deaths came in 2020, when 103 people, including 18 pedestrians, died in wrecks.

While newer cars are safer, they’re also often bigger, faster, and heavier than they used to be, making them more lethal.

“If you're driving a 3,000-pound vehicle at 50 to 100 miles an hour, you're weaponizing that car. And you’re the one pulling the trigger,” Carlisle says.

It's largely an American problem. Chung says no other developed countries are seeing surges in traffic deaths.

“In fact, they're seeing decreases in roadway fatalities,” Chung says. “So, we're not doing something right.”

That said, American roadways are still much safer than they were in the 1960s, when the death rate per mile was about three times higher than today.

And a flood of new improvements is on the way, thanks to President Biden’s Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act passed by Congress last year. Those changes will take years to take effect, but it calls for better headlights that adjust to light conditions and on-coming cars automatically.

Eventually, new cars will all come with systems designed to detect and prevent drunk driving. Hoods and bumpers are changing to make them less deadly to pedestrians and cyclists, following European standards. And new cars will have automatic braking systems that fire when a car is about to hit something.

“The technology is to assist the driver in recognizing that obstacle. And if you're not fast enough to apply the brakes, it will do that for you,” Chung says.

It's a system that might have spared the life of Charles Criniere.

I’ve been at KCUR almost 30 years, working partly for NPR and splitting my time between local and national reporting. I work to bring extra attention to people in the Midwest, my home state of Kansas and of course Kansas City. What I love about this job is having a license to talk to interesting people and then crafting radio stories around their voices. It’s a big responsibility to uphold the truth of those stories while condensing them for lots of other people listening to the radio, and I take it seriously. Email me at frank@kcur.org or find me on Twitter @FrankNewsman.
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