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Illinois traffic deaths spike as pandemic trends lead to more roadway tragedies

Deaths on Illinois roads jumped by about 24% in the first quarter of this year compared to the same time last year. Experts say the pandemic forces driving a nationwide increase aren’t showing signs of slowing down soon.

By Manny Ramos, Chicago Sun Times Sept 6, 2022, 5:30am CDT

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 fights 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, and 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.

Jennifer Flores said she 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.

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