Crash victims' mother fights to stop distracted driving

Published: Tuesday, July 9 2013 6:25 p.m. MDT

Jessica Uhl, 18, and Kelli Uhl, 13, were killed Nov. 23, 2007, in Illinois. A trooper traveling 126 mph hit their vehicle while responding to an accident. He was on his cellphone and had sent emails from his on-board computer moments before the accident.

Kim Schlau Family

SANDY — Kim Schlau lost her two eldest daughters after a trooper responding to a crash hit their car five years ago.

At first it appeared to be a tragic accident with a trooper responding to a call. But an investigation revealed the trooper, who was traveling more than 120 mph, was on his cellphone and sending emails on his computer moments before the crash.

“I want to make sure that doesn’t happen to others, because it’s preventable,” Schlau said.

Today, Schlau travels around the country sharing her message of safety to those who are sworn to serve and protect. She was in Sandy on Monday sharing her story with nearly 300 Utah Highway Patrol troopers.

On Nov. 23, 2007, the day after Thanksgiving, Jessica Uhl, 18, and her sister, Kelli Uhl, 13, were killed on I-64 near Fairview Heights in southern Illinois. They were returning home from their father’s house in the St. Louis area when they were hit by a car driven by Illinois trooper Matt Mitchell.

“He was driving 126 mph at the time of impact,” Schlau said. “It hit a culvert pipe that was sticking out, so he went airborne and drove through the top of Jessica’s car. His front end went in through her window, killing her and her sister.”

Jessica was pursuing a degree in marketing and public relations at Southern Illinois University in Edwardsville. Her sister, Kelli, was in the eighth grade at Collinsville Middle School. She was a cheerleader and a member of the National Junior Honor Society.

“They had so much potential that was cut short. They were great kids,” Schlau said. “I really do feel that they were going to do great things in their lives.”

As the investigation unfolded, Schlau learned that the trooper was called off the accident, which was 20 miles away, “but he didn’t hear that because he was on his cellphone with his girlfriend,” she said.

The investigation also revealed this was Mitchell’s third crash and he was driving nearly 130 mph.

"Every time we would think, 'Now we can start this grieving process,' we'd get another piece of information, and it was like one gut punch after another,” Schlau said.

Mitchell was charged with two counts of reckless homicide and aggravated reckless driving. He pleaded guilty and can no longer serve in law enforcement. He was sentenced to 30 months of probation and his driver’s license was suspended for two years.

“He was abusing the power, basically, and we knew that if he was given a chance, he would go out and do this again,” Schlau said.

A year to the day after the Uhls were killed, the Illinois state police director issued sweeping changes on pursuits, including no personal cellphones in the vehicles. Troopers' business phones now need to be hands-free devices, and once the speed reaches a certain level, they are not allowed to use any electronics.

Schlau said she understands the importance of technology on the job, “but there’s a time and a place when you have to put that technology aside and concentrate on the wheel between your hands.

“It truly, truly can happen in the blink of an eye,” she added.

Schlau said her campaign is a way to educate law enforcement of the dangers of distracted driving and to remember her daughters.

Utah Highway Patrol Col. Danny Fuhr said Schlau’s message is something all officers need to hear.

"We, as a law enforcement body, all of us, failed her that day, because we as a law enforcement body didn't respond in an appropriate manner,” Fuhr said.

Troopers have permission to exceed the speed limit, he said. Each call is evaluated, and the response needs to match the incident.

“We don’t drive in a manner that puts the public in greater danger than the situation that we’re responding to,” Fuhr said. “We also have a great responsibility, and that responsibility is to every single motorist on the interstate."

Schlau said her message is getting through.

“When I have officers come up to me afterwards and say, ‘You saved my life,’ that’s huge for me,” she said. “Then I know that we’re doing it right. We’re doing something here.”

Contributing: Viviane Vo-Duc

Email: jboal@deseretnews.com

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