"It's like the Bermuda Triangle," Needles says of the downhill curve from 90th Street to 92st Street on Wornall Road.
Homes along that stretch, located just north of Bannister Road, were built in the early- to mid-1950s, when everything south of 85th Street was beyond city limits. In 1973, the city widened the road to accommodate growth to the south. Residents who have lived in the area from the beginning say that's when the accidents, and deaths, started.
Needles recalls several accidents in which motorcycles or cars slammed into her trees, destroyed her bird feeder and, on one occasion, ran into her house. She also remembers two accidents in which cars crashed into the front window of a nearby home.
A few houses away, retired Kansas City police officer Dan Breece has fashioned a cross of red reflectors on his most battered tree. He also keeps three orange warning cones ready in his home so that when an accident occurs, he can stand them in the road to avoid a pileup. "If you look at all the trees," Breece says, pointing to the line of street-side pin oaks that runs from yard to yard on the west side of Wornall, "you'll see where cars ran into them."
Drivers headed southbound on Wornall approach the top of the hill around 90th Street and hit a curve around 91st. Neither the hill nor the curve is particularly severe, but traffic can move downhill at 50 mph easily, and high speeds coupled with poor weather, poor nighttime visibility, drunkenness, sleepiness or inattentiveness have sent cars barreling into trees. The stretch has also had numerous car-to-car accidents, as drivers come upon stopped vehicles before they realize they're speeding downhill.
"I guarantee if you park your car out here on the street, it wouldn't sit thirty minutes before you'd hear tires squealing," Breece says.
Longtime residents have gotten used to the wrecks outside their homes, but the fatalities are more difficult to accept. Bernerd and Eileen Daniels, who live at one of the road's most hazardous points, have witnessed many of the accidents from their front living room. "This tree next door has been the cause of two deaths out here," Bernerd Daniels says.
City traffic engineer Steve Worley says that neither the curve nor the speed limit are overly problematic along that stretch. The trouble comes when people drive too fast at off-peak times, such as at night. "That's the issue out on Wornall," Worley says. "You've got a four-lane road, and people feel comfortable driving faster than 35 mph."
But reducing the speed limit will not slow down drivers, Worley warns. If anything, a speed limit slower than 35 mph might cause drivers to completely disregard the limit because it seems too slow. More monitoring from police would help, Worley says, but "it's hard [for police] to commit those types of resources."
In the past few weeks, city workers have put up two new signs notifying drivers of the curve and another speed limit sign at the bottom of the hill. But no one seems confident that the signs will help. "I don't know if a 35 mph sign will help if a guy's going 50 mph by the time he reaches the sign," Breece says.
Evidence of the April 30 wreck is still scattered in Needles' front yard. Bits of glass and plastic surround the base of the tree, which had a sizable chunk taken from its trunk when the victim's car slammed into it. For Needles, the latest fatality isn't just a reminder of previous wrecks near her home but of a car accident elsewhere, many years ago, that killed her son. When these wrecks occur, she says, "it just brings it all back."