Kansas City homicides are getting all the attention these days, and rightly so.
The number of murders this year has reached 145, up from 127 last year in what was a particularly violent 12 months.
But police are now pointing to another, often overlooked category of carnage in the city, and that’s traffic fatalities. Sadly, the numbers there aren’t far off the homicide totals.
As of noon Tuesday, the traffic fatality count had reached 98 for the year, up an astonishing 44 percent from the 68 recorded last year. One of the latest victims was a pedestrian killed Monday morning by a vehicle in a hit-and-run accident on Holmes Road, just south of Kenneth Road in south Kansas City.
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In that case, police are looking for a 2008-2011 Buick Lucerne with front-end damage to the passenger side.
Surprisingly, this comes at a time when statewide fatalities have dropped by 4 percent.
Why the number of traffic fatalities has climbed to totals not seen in more than a quarter-century is a bit of a mystery, officers said. They don’t have definitive answers, but they do have theories, some of which easily could apply to past years when the numbers were so horrible.
Distracted driving is one. Missouri remains one of three states that have yet to ban texting and driving, and state Rep. Cloria Brown, a Mehlville Republican, has once again filed bills to address the issue.
There’s impaired driving, which includes drivers under the influence of booze or drugs. Officers are coming across drivers who have used marijuana at all times of the day and say it messes with depth perception and peripheral vision. Harder drugs, such as meth and heroin, aren’t uncommon, either.
Last year, the Missouri General Assembly eliminated funding for sobriety checkpoints aimed at finding drunken drivers. That left local agencies such as the Kansas City Police Department on their own. This year, police conducted three checkpoints, down by about half from the number a year ago.
Homicides wind up occupying the time of traffic cops who have to handle those scenes, taking them away from street patrols. Some traffic officers have been reassigned from traffic duty to homicide investigations. That’s hurt, too.
Major Roger Lewis, who oversees the traffic division, points to what he sees as more aggressive driving across the city as people rush from one place to the next. “People are in a bigger hurry, they’re driving faster, more carelessly, more aggressively as they try to get from Point A to Point B,” he said.
There’s also been a sharp decline in the number of tickets that officers are writing these days. Some 53,000 fewer tickets have been written this year, down 33 percent from the 162,489 citations last year. A new state law passed in the wake of the Ferguson uprising stops commanders from ordering more tickets, Lewis said.
What’s to be done? A lot. Officers clearly need to start writing more tickets, and recent stats show they are, Lewis said. The legislature needs to bite the bullet and ban texting and driving. Police must continue their outreach to community groups, with officers emphasizing the importance of slowing down. Commanders might reconsider their decision to divert officers away from traffic patrols, which would increase the presence of police on major thoroughfares.
Maybe a little luck will help, too. Lewis believes that a bit of snow slows down traffic. Slick streets may result in more fender benders, but he believes they lead to fewer deaths.
“We need to try to figure this out,” he said. Yes, we do.