Merriam considers banning pedestrians from busy medians, but some worry it won’t address causes of panhandling

Merriam panhandling

The city of Merriam will consider an ordinance prohibiting pedestrians from standing, sitting or being in the median at nine major intersections. Above, a person panhandling in a median at 75th Street and Interstate 35 — one of the intersections that would be included in the ordinance.

Motorists traveling near Interstate 35 and Shawnee Mission Parkway may have seen individuals standing or sitting in medians, often asking for money or food.

Now, Merriam city officials are considering prohibiting pedestrians from standing, sitting or otherwise being in nine major intersections across the city, citing concerns for driver and pedestrian safety.

But some worry such a prohibition may put extra burdens on people already struggling on the margins of society without addressing the deeper roots of the problem.

‘If it’s unsafe, it’s unsafe’

Police Chief Darren McLaughlin said the nine intersections in question account for more than half of the city’s accidents in any given year.

McLaughlin said texting or other driver distractions are the number one contributing factor to those accidents.

The recent uptick in pedestrians on medians (which includes people soliciting for money or food) adds another layer of distraction for drivers, McLaughlin said. By prohibiting pedestrians from being on these medians, McLaughlin said it would make driving safer for all on the road.

The Johnson Drive and I-35 intersection, near Ikea, accounted for 454 crashes from 2010 to 2020, according to city data. File photo.

“If it’s unsafe, it’s unsafe,” McLaughlin said. “It’s my position, that for the safety of the drivers and the pedestrians themselves conducting these activities, these are just not safe areas to do it.”

A violator could be sentenced to a fine of up to $499 or imprisonment not to exceed 30 days, according to city documents. Officers will be educating violators first, though, McLaughlin said.

The intersections are as follows, along with the number of crashes from the last 10 years, per city documents:

  • Interstate 35 and Shawnee Mission Parkway, accounting for 784 crashes
  • Johnson Drive and I-35, accounting for 454 crashes
  • 75th Street and I-35, accounting for 435 crashes
  • 67th Street and I-35, accounting for 338 crashes
  • I-35 and Antioch Road, accounting for 309 crashes
  • Shawnee Mission Parkway and Antioch Road, accounting for 291 crashes
  • Antioch Road and Johnson Drive, accounting for 136 crashes
  • 75th Street and East Frontage Road, accounting for 124 crashes
  • Shawnee Mission Parkway and Mastin Drive, accounting for 123 crashes

Councilmember says issue raises moral, ethical concerns

City Attorney Ryan Denk clarified for the city council that the ordinance is not violating First Amendment rights so long as it focuses on time, place and manner — and doesn’t restrict content, such as panhandling.

But Councilmember Whitney Yadrich said she sees the ordinance as a moral and ethical dilemma, not just a public safety item.

“I don’t want us to have an ordinance that prevents panhandling in medians of these nine intersections and not take into account that it is, in my opinion, panhandling can be a symptom of a larger problem, not a problem itself,” Yadrich said.

Additionally, Yadrich said she hopes, if such an ordinance moves forward, access to resources such as phone numbers and nearby places are given to panhandlers and others who may need it. McLauglin said officers have and will continue to offer resources to those who are in the city’s medians.

The city council will formally vote on the ordinance at the Feb. 8 meeting, as Monday evening constituted the first reading with no action aside from discussion.