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Car crash deaths fall nationwide, but in Kansas City they're 'destroying our communities'

A crumpled, gray SUV sits smashed into the side of a building. First responders can be seen in the background working and emergency vehicles are in the background with lights flashing.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
First responders work the scene of an accident at 51st Street and Prospect Avenue on Feb. 24, 2023.

No one expects to die violently when they get in a car or go for a walk, but that nightmare took the life of someone in Kansas City almost twice a week in 2023. And while the death toll eased some nationwide, crossing the street is as dangerous as it’s been in decades.

About 100 Americans who woke up this morning will be dead by day’s end, crushed in steel, or tossed across a roadway. It’s like an airliner crashing every single day.

“It's friends, its families, its neighbors, it's coworkers,” said Russ Martin, Senior Director of Policy and Government Relations at the Governor’s Highway Safety Association.

Bad habits from the pandemic are driving up the death toll. Traffic fatalities had been trending down for decades, despite there being more people on the road logging more miles year by year.

The rates fluctuated, but the pandemic brought a 16-year high in 2021 — about 42,915 people, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The following year was almost as bad: there were only 120 fewer deaths in 2022.

The 2021 jump in roadway deaths was even sharper in Kansas City, where 103 people died on streets and highways that year. That was the highest number in at least three decades (and more than double the number killed in 2014).

In 2022 Kansas City's total dropped to 90, but then, last year, wrecks killed 102 people in the city. During a year when traffic fatalities eased about 3% nationwide, they jumped 13% in Kansas City.

Risky habits drivers picked up during the pandemic have not abated here, according to police.

“The main causes that we're seeing is speed, excessive speeds, impairment, and no seat belts,” said Kansas City Police Sergeant Johnathan Rivers.

That’s the big change since before the pandemic: the way people are acting behind the wheel. Speeders tend to be going faster than before, drinkers are drunker, there’s more marijuana and drug use. And of course, people are looking at their phones.

And while distracted, lawless driving is up, law enforcement is down.

In Kansas City, the police department’s traffic control division has shrunk to less than half the size it was four years ago, Rivers said.

“People feel that they can drive any way they want to since they don't see officers on the highway as much as they used to,” he said.

It’s not just Kansas City. Police departments across the country report slumping staff totals after a wave of resignations and retirements in the wake of the pandemic and protests surrounding the murder of George Floyd. Rivers said traffic control divisions can be especially hard hit because they tend not to respond to priority emergency calls.

There is some good news about traffic fatalities.

“At a national level, they're slightly down,” said Mark Chung, executive vice president of the roadway practice area at the National Safety Council.

It takes months to collect and verify crash data from around the country, but Chung said indications are that traffic fatalities eased around 3% in 2023, toward possibly about 40,000 deaths. Because Americans are driving more now, that’s a big improvement. But it's still a lot worse than before the pandemic.

“The delta between that and pre-pandemic 2019 levels is around 6,000 or maybe even 7,000 lives,” said Chung.

And dangerous as it is to be riding in a car these days, walking across streets, or even along the sides of them, is much worse. Last year pedestrian deaths in the United States spiked to their highest number since 1981.

“In the past couple of years, we've been in the midst of a pedestrian safety crisis, pedestrians being struck and killed on roadways,” said Martin.

Martin said pedestrian fatalities spiked up almost 80% in a decade, leading to at least 7,508 pedestrian deaths last year.

Some of that carnage is related to factors that are driving up all traffic fatalities, chiefly bad driving habits. But pedestrian fatalities have been rising for years. Car designs and consumer choice are partly to blame.

“Cars are safer for occupants. They have not been for non-occupants,” said Chung. “And in fact, the last 20 years have been more dangerous for non-occupants.”

Those newer, tall, imposing, blunt-faced pickups and SUVs are particularly deadly compared to smaller sedans. They are 45% more likely to kill a pedestrian, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. And they’re popular. SUVs and pickup trucks account for about two-thirds of new vehicle sales.

While the factors leading to increased traffic fatalities are well known, pushing them down is a complex problem. Traffic experts insist it is possible by improving road and vehicle designs, emergency response, and policing, and by somehow convincing 230 million American drivers to be careful. The National Safety Council has staked out a goal of running traffic fatalities all the way down to zero by 2050.

It can’t happen fast enough for people like KCPD’s Sgt. Rivers.

“It's destroying our communities,” he said. “We see young lives snuffed out. We have to have it stop.”

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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