Will and Kim Hammond were in bed watching the 10 p.m. news when — again — they heard the distant whine of revving motorcycles poised on Overland Park’s Switzer Road.
“Here they come,” Will Hammond said.
It’s been happening every night. Often several times. They rip-roar by on the sweeping curve that bends outside their backyard north of 131st Street.
This time, Sunday night, one of those revving sportbikes they heard belonged to 21-year-old Alec Haith, of Leawood.
And this time, the Hammonds and other neighbors bolted up and out of their homes at the boom of an explosion.
Right outside their back doors a giant ball of fire was consuming trees. Burning debris scattered across the grass. And someone was trying to revive Haith’s body with CPR.
What they saw they describe now with an emotional brew of sadness, terror and anger.
“This was someone’s son,” Kim Hammond said. “It’s senseless.”
The neighbors say Overland Park police know that racing motorcyclists are almost nightly roaring down Switzer past homes and Blue Valley schools, and they want the police to do more to stop them.
“The police can’t catch them and won’t chase them,” Jeff Gannon said in an email. He says he’s seen the department regularly parking one of its Explorers at a four-way stop intersection at Nieman Road to watch for drivers who roll through it. “Park that … Explorer in the median on Switzer!” he said.
Racing has been happening on the street for many years, the neighbors said.
“In the winter it’s cars,” Will Hammond said. “In the summer it’s motorcycles.”
They’ve had a car out of control end up within 10 feet of their back patio, he said. Just a week before the fatal crash, Kim Hammond called 911 on another crash on the southbound side of Switzer, she said. No one was injured in that one.
Sunday night realized the worst of everyone’s fears.
Two people with the motorcyclists who had stayed on the crash scene were frantically trying to save Haith, the witnesses said. A group of riders who’d been with them watched from their sportbikes about 20 yards down the street. Most of their bikes did not have license plates, the neighbors said.
And when the first sirens of the emergency responders were heard approaching, the sportbikers all drove off, they said.
Will Hammond remembered looking at the nearest of the watching motorcyclists.
“He’s a kid, and he’s looking at his friend,” Hammond said. “I’m thinking, I understand that you’re young and that (speed) is exciting, but …”
Police get many calls about Switzer. Will Hammond has the department’s number plugged into his phone.
They also get calls on other racing hot spots, said Overland Park Public Information Officer John Lacy.
“We urge people to call in,” he said. But actually enforcing traffic safety in these cases, he said, “is hit and miss.”
They could park a police vehicle in view of Switzer with radar, but the sportbike groups send scouts up and down the street first, Lacy said. If the police are there, they’ll go to other spots like 135th Street east of Quivira Road, or 151st Street at Antioch Road.
Like Switzer, these are broad four-lane roads with medians and minimal cross streets. Switzer, however, adds the dangerous thrill of curves that racers can lean into.
Some riders go without license plates and are hard to identify, and if they speed off, police aren’t going to create larger dangers by chasing after them, Lacy said.
The neighbors wonder if stop lights or stop signs at 131st could help, or a few strategically placed speed bumps.
Overland Park’s traffic engineer, Brian Shields, said these are not appropriate options for the site. Data shows that some 10,000 cars travel Switzer daily, and around 1,000 cars enter from 131st. There are federal guidelines on traffic signals, he said, and he doesn’t see enough traffic off of 131st or enough difficulty for those vehicles to turn onto Switzer to warrant stopping the Switzer traffic.
The city doesn’t want to put speed bumps down on a major thoroughfare. Emergency reponders don’t want them on such streets either, he said.
The intersection at 131st does not see crashes as often as busier intersections. There have been 12 since 2012, according to city records, though three have happened in the past two months. Only one — the latest one — was fatal.
The police have always responded kindly to the neighbors’ pleas, Will Hammond said. He believes they are sympathetic. He just wants them to do more.
“I know they can’t stop it,” he said. “But I ask they do more to attempt to reduce it…I don’t want (more riders) to get killed.”
They also appeal to the riders, though they know that’s a hard message to get through.
Monday night, no racing happened on Switzer as a large gathering of people came to memorialize Alec Haith — a crowd that grew so large the vigil moved to a nearby church parking lot.
Tuesday night, they heard it again — the revving engines, the bursts of acceleration and the bikes screaming by like comets.