[Matthew Wilhelm]...a University of Illinois mechanical engineering graduate working for Caterpillar in Peoria, died on Sept. 8 from head injuries he received Sept. 2 when Jennifer Stark hit him with her car because she was downloading ring tones to her cell phone instead of paying attention to driving (emphasis added).
Mr. Wilhelm was bicycling north on Illinois 130 east of Urbana when he was struck from behind about 7:15 p.m. Stark was so far off the road that she hit Mr. Wilhelm from behind with the driver's side of her car. He was wearing a helmet.
Murder a bicyclist or pedestrian, get a slap on the wrist. "Six months of conditional discharge, a form of probation...a $1,000 fine and traffic safety school." Disgusting. This is a real failure of law enforcement in Illinois. The 19-year-old offender, Jennifer Stark, had three prior convictions for traffic violations, including a speeding conviction just five weeks before she killed Wilhelm.
Did the police blow the investigation, missing something that damaged the prosecution's case? Hey, it was only a bicyclist, not anyone who matters. Did the State's Attorney, Julia Rietz, opt for an easy plea bargain rather than a difficult case? Fortunately, Wilhelm's parents aren't sitting back, and are campaigning for stricter laws against driving while using a cellphone.:
The Wilhelms hope lawmakers plug the hole next spring, passing a new "Matt's Law," creating a charge for distracted drivers that would fall between the petty offense and reckless homicide.
I called States Attorney Julia Reitz, who indicated that she pursued her case in full compliance with what the law allowed. There was no plea bargain. "The Illinois State Police did an investigation and concluded improper lane usage, which is a petty offense." She added that the State Police conducted a sobriety check on Stark, and that she admitted her cell phone distraction at the scene.
Reitz explained that her office reviewed the case and pursued the prosecution that obtained the maximum possible penalty. Reitz added that she is presently working with Illinois State Representative Bill Black on legislation to fill a gap in existing law. In contrast to the "Matt's Law" proposed by Wilhelm's family, which only deals with cell phone use, Reitz' proposal would expand the legal definition of recklessness, to sustain reckless homicide or reckless driving. Representative Black is convening a "distracted driving task force."
And the perpetrator, Jennifer Stark, how is she coping after negligently causing the death of a promising young college student? My colleague, Jym Dyer, wrote on the SFBike listserve: "The driver/killer is so upset and persecuted-feeling that she can barely find the time to squeal about her dating life on MySpace. But hey, Jesus is on her side."
I encourage Illinois bicyclists and friends to contact their legislators. The danger posed to all road users--bicyclists, pedestrians, and motorists, by "distracted drivers" is only going to grow worse.
Visit: Paul Dorn's Bike Commuting Tips Site