It was just after 6 a.m. when Jennifer Flores received a call earlier this summer telling her she needed to get to Stroger Hospital as quickly as she could — her daughters had just been in a car accident.
“At first I didn’t think it was that bad. All I knew was that my 12-year-old had minor injuries, and she was alert and able to talk,” Flores said. “But it took me about four hours to find out where Arnelis [Flores] was at in the hospital, and when I finally did, they didn’t want to let me see her but only to identify her with a photo of her hand.”
When Jennifer Flores finally learned her 14-year-old daughter Arnelis Flores was on life support, the mother recalls losing control over her body. She fell to the floor, screamed, threw any objects she could grab and banged her head against the wall.
Arnelis Flores would die after being on life support for just a few days, including one machine dedicated to preserving her organs for donation.
24% jump in Illinois traffic deaths
It’s a story unfolding more often across the country with roadway tragedies on a steady rise since the COVID-19 pandemic hit — a trend playing out acutely in Illinois, according to the latest report released by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Nationwide, motor vehicle traffic fatalities reached a 20-year high during the first three months of 2022, when an estimated 9,560 people died in car crashes — a 7% increase compared to the same period in 2021, and the worst total recorded since 2002.
The increase was even sharper on Illinois roads, where there were an estimated 280 traffic fatalities during the first quarter of the year, a 24% jump from the same time in 2021. The NHTSA won’t finalize counts until the end of the year.
Ken Kolosh, statistics manager for the nonprofit National Safety Council, said the numbers suggest roadways across the country are less safe now than they were before the pandemic.
Kolosh, whose organization advocates against the leading causes of preventable deaths, said in the aftermath of the pandemic, drivers across the country have grown more prone to dangerous or risky behaviors.
Those behaviors include speeding, which was initially associated with fewer vehicles on the streets because of pandemic shutdowns, and experts say drivers have continued to accelerate as traffic returned to some semblance of normal.
On top of that, more drivers are getting behind the wheel while drunk or high, many aren’t wearing seat belts or putting down their cellphones.
“Although we may not have 100% control over the roadway environment we drive in, we do have 100% control over following the speed limit, buckling up — and making sure everyone in your vehicle is buckled up — and not ever drinking and driving,” Kolosh said.
‘I just want my baby’
Jennifer Flores hopes her daughter’s story can be used as a cautionary tale for reckless drivers to understand the dangers of speeding and driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
That’s what killed Arnelis Flores, her mother said.
The 14-year-old had been out with her father and siblings at an illegal car meet in mid-July, Jennifer Flores said, adding she didn’t know her estranged husband was taking them to the underground gathering.
After 2 a.m. July 17, the teen’s father was driving west on the Eisenhower Expressway at Kedzie Avenue and decided to pull over on the left shoulder, according to Jennifer Flores and authorities. That’s when a pickup rear-ended their car, pinning Arnelis Flores beneath the steering wheel.
Arnelis died days later.
Her 12-year-old sister and a 19-year-old woman in the car were hospitalized with less serious injuries, according to the Illinois State Police. So was Arnelis’ father, who was later charged with a misdemeanor count of driving under the influence of alcohol, state police said.
Omar Abdul Raoof — the 27-year-old Woodridge man allegedly behind the wheel of the pickup that slammed into them — now faces a felony charge of aggravated DUI resulting in death.
Arnelis would have started her freshman year at Taft High School last month.
“I drive past Taft every day on my way to work, and it’s a constant reminder that my daughter should be there learning,” Jennifer Flores said. “My mental state is in shambles. I literally haven’t taken my other kids to their first day of school because I know it’s going to be very hard on me. I just want my baby.”
‘One eye on the road, and one eye on their phone’
While the one-year rise in Illinois motor vehicle deaths has been stark, figures have been on the rise for a decade, according to the National Safety Council’s data. In 2020, the most recent data available, there were 1,194 traffic fatalities in the state, compared to 927 fatalities in 2010.
Illinois has lost 584 people in traffic crashes through the first six months of 2022, the council has found. That’s an 8% increase compared to the first half of 2021 and a 32% jump from 2020.
And experts say the second half of the year is typically even worse for traffic deaths.
P.S. Sriraj, director of UIC’s Urban Transportation Center, said he isn’t surprised at the disturbing trend.
“This is not anything to minimize or anything to dismiss and must be taken very seriously,” Sriraj said. “There have been a lot of efforts on the parts of automobile manufacturers and local law enforcement to bring the number of fatalities down, but all that ground gained is at risk of being lost.”
On top of drunken driving and speeding, Sriraj called for more attention to the issue of distracted driving.
“It’s almost as if anyone on the road these days has one eye on the road and one eye on their phone,” Sriraj said. “As much as impaired driving is a leading cause of fatality, at the same time, distracted driving seems to be increasing as well.”
For Jennifer Flores, she wants her daughter to be remembered for who she was: a teen who loved making TikTok videos and who had a knack for finding the right words to make people feel better. She’s launched an online fundraiser to help cover funeral costs.
“If anyone can take one thing away from my daughter’s story, please don’t drink and drive,” Jennifer Flores said. “Remember those actions can have an immensely negative impact on the lives of others.”