KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Police have noticed a worrisome trend on the roadways during the COVID-19 pandemic: a surge in deadly crashes even though fewer people are driving these days.
It’s taken a tragic toll on one local family.
Zahara Kathawalla moved to Kansas City after graduating from the Wisconsin School of Business in Madison. She started her career in the metro and loved music and spending time with friends.
But on June 21, Zahara and a friend were walking home around 8 p.m. when police say a 22-year-old woman, who was driving drunk and drag racing, hit and killed Zahara near 43rd and Main streets.
Police said the woman was driving nearly 100 mph just three seconds before impact.
That 22-year-old, Shabazz Frencher, was charged in early November with DWI, first-degree involuntary manslaughter, leaving the scene of an accident and driving while revoked.
“In one moment, one second, you know, she was gone,” Zahara’s father Dr. Salim Kathawalla said. “And so it’s just thinkable and unimaginable. I wish I could undo it. I just feel powerless. I couldn’t do anything.”
“For me, I am still in a deep state of sadness, and I just don’t know how every day is a yoyo of emotions, but it’s very hard,” her mother Farida Kathawalla said.
Zahara’s death struck a personal chord with veteran Kansas City police Sgt. Bill Mahoney.
“Just an egregious set of circumstances. A pedestrian that was hit at 43rd and Main where the car that struck her was traveling in the 90s prior to hitting her,” he said. “That to me pretty much wraps up the year. It kind of, it’s an example of what we are looking at.”
Mahoney said the rise in deadly crashes started in early March 2020 and hasn’t gone down.
“We haven’t seen any stop to it,” he said.
As of Wednesday, there have been 95 deadly crashes on Kansas City streets and highways; last year, there were 68 at this same time of year.
“It’s a very upsetting trend,” Mahoney said.
And that trend is happening at a time when fewer people are on the road. The Missouri State Highway Patrol said traffic counts statewide decreased 40-50% at the height of the pandemic. Kansas reports traffic counts for the year are down nearly 10%.
But those fewer drivers on the roads are not only going fast, some are moving in the triple digits, officials say.
“Our people routinely write people for over 100 mph,” Mahoney said.
And many are driving drunk.
“I’d say speed and impairment are the two greatest increases of the factors. We can be positive when we quantify them,” Mahoney said.
In a matter of minutes on a stretch of Interstate 435 on the east side of Kansas City, Officer Aaron Kohrs stopped three drivers. He clocked all of them at speeds of nearly 90 mph.
“It’s not uncommon at all to stop two, three, four cars doing 90-95 mph. It’s not just 435. It’s I-29, 71 Highway,” he said.
Kohrs agrees there’s a COVID connection with drivers speeding while traffic volume is down.
“There was a noticeable difference in speed once the virus and the city started shutting down the business and the amount of people going to work every day,” he said.
Police say I-435 isn’t the only place resembling Kansas Speedway these days.
“Wark Parkway is certainly one that a lot of violations are cited at,” Mahoney said. “Any of the highways, thoroughfares, 152 Highway in the Northland. These are areas that are seeing pretty comparable speeds.”
Or 43rd and Main where the deadly combination of speed and alcohol cost Zahara Kathawalla her life. It’s an unimaginable incident her family still struggles to understand.
“At the onset of the pandemic, being a physician, I had great concerns about the virus. and in my heart, I felt this year someone in my family would be affected by the virus,” Zahara’s father said.
“Never in my wildest dreams that I ever thought that my youngest daughter who was completely healthy, never any issues with that, would die from an accident that indirectly has been caused by this kind of pandemic.”
Zahara’s family has a message for all drivers.
“When you are going at such high speed and drinking, those are things that will lead to these kind of events, like death,” her mother Farida said.
It’s a message they hope will save someone else’s daughter, sister or loved one.
“These choices people made led to my sister’s death and, you know, maybe it’s that things are not open because of COVID and all these external factors as well at play,” Ummul Kathawalla said. “I think people need to know the consequences of the choices they make.”
“Speeding can truly kill someone, and then if you kind of drink and speed, that combination clearly is very deadly,” Farida said.
Zahara’s family said they now want to focus on how she lived her life. They have set up the Zaraha Kathawalla Foundation to honor her spirit and to help young adults like her purse their passion for education, travel and wellness.
Police on both sides of the state line are urging everyone to slow down, wear their seat belts and not drink and drive to prevent another tragedy. Agencies say they will be out in force this holiday season.