Cager kills another biker...
Back 2 September 2006, Matt was riding his bike outside Champaign-Urbana when a cager hit him. Jennifer Stark, 19, of Urbana, was distracted by downloading ring tones onto her cell phone. He died of head injuries from the accident six days later.
Unbelievably, the Champaign County State's Attorney didn't charge Stark with reckless homicide or involuntary manslaughter. The facts didn't show willful and wanton disregard for the safety of others. In response, Matt's parents have been advocating working with local and state officials to change the laws for cagers concerning cell phone use and other distractions to driving.
Unfortunately, it appears that a new proposal to ban cell phone use by cagers doesn't have any support whatsoever on the Champiagn City Council. Mike Monson of The News-Gazette resports,
Champaign Mayor Jerry Schweighart said this week that he circulated a study session request form at Tuesday's council meeting calling for consideration of a cell phone ban, but he didn't receive any signatures. Five of the nine members must sign a study session request form for an item to be taken up by the council.
Schweighart said he circulated the form at the request of Chuck and Gloria Wilhelm, the parents of Matt Wilhelm, 25, of Peoria, who died on Sept. 14 as a result of he injuries he received in a Sept. 2 crash.
Mr. Wilhelm was hit by a car driven by Jennifer Stark of Urbana, a 19-year-old Urbana woman. Stark was downloading ring tones onto her cell phone when she hit Mr. Wilhelm, who was riding a bicycle, just east of Urbana.
Stark pleaded guilty last month to improper lane usage and is set to be sentenced in late November. The maximum penalty she can receive is a $1,000 fine.
The Wilhelms, formerly of Champaign and currently Bourbonnais residents, have vowed, in the wake of their son's death, to increase penalties for distracted driving.
Schweighart said council members are sympathetic but don't agree with a cell phone ban while driving.
"No one signed off on it," said the mayor. "They (council members) were sympathetic for the Wilhelms, but they feel our best efforts would be directed toward legislation that the state's attorneys could utilize, with tougher penalties for distracted driving."
Council member Marci Dodds said she is hesitant to support a cell phone ban for drivers.
"I'm leery of having different driving laws in different jurisdictions, especially when they're close together," she said.
In Urbana, Alderman Charlie Smyth, D-Ward 1, has proposed banning cell phone use while driving, but he also is having difficulty garnering council support.
The Wilhelms released the following statement about the Champaign council's lack of support:
"We want people to recognize the seriousness of distracted and inattentive driving," they wrote. "Several studies show that talking on a cell phone while driving is one of the worst vehicle distractions and leads to much higher accident rates.
"You are four times more likely to have an accident while using a cell phone. Also, 80 percent of crashes involved some form of driver inattention within three seconds before the event. We need to make the city council aware that many people support this initiative."
Meanwhile, state Rep. Bill Black, R-Danville, said this week that he will be introducing legislation to be considered in January calling for creation of a distracted driving task force. The task force would likely include representatives from statewide associations representing Illinois state's attorneys, sheriffs, chiefs of police, the bar association and auto dealers.
The task force would look into whether the state vehicle code needs to be changed to include stiffer penalties for distracted driving. Black said he thinks distracted driving is a growing problem, with cell phones, laptop computers, DVD players and other devices growing in use.
"I'm sensitive to the Wilhelms' case," Black said. "There's just not enough meat in the vehicle code about distracted driving. What should the penalties be?"
Champaign County State's Attorney Julia Rietz declined to charge Stark with reckless homicide or involuntary manslaughter, both of which are felonies, because she said the facts didn't show willful and wanton disregard for the safety of others. Black said he is working with Rietz on the legislation.