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Friday, December 01, 2006

Sickening situation in Illinois

Woman is sentenced for bicyclist's death:

[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


Yokota Fritz said...

I lived, worked, and cycled in Champaign County, Illinois for eight years. Of all the places I've lived, that part of Illinois is the most hostile environment for cyclists.

While I lived there, Jerry Keiper was killed after he was run over by an aging motorist in Champaign. The driver said he never saw Keiper on the road and, if I recall, he never he received a ticket for his negligent driving.

Green Street in Urbana runs through the University of Illinois campus and is the site of many collisions between motorists and pedestrians.
Whenever fatalities occur, the response of university and city police is to cite pedestrians, not motorists.

Urbana Bicycle Commute is a worthwhile blog to subscribe to.

Anonymous said...

The price of a human life is $1000 in Illinois? Insane. I really hope the Illinois voters remember Matt when it comes re-election time for Julia Rietz. Rietz needs to be kicked out of office for failing to protect the citizens of her county. Matt's family have put up a new website for Matt: - I hope it makes a difference.

Jennifer Stark should be in jail and have had all her driving privileges revoked for life. Imagine that, she would have to use public transportation or *GASP* ride a bike to get around.

Manny said...

Until our society puts harsh penalties for intentional thoughtless behavior, drunken drivers and distracted drivers will keep killing innocent pedestrians and bikers with just a slap on the wrist. In the Jennifer Stark case, I don't understand why the law was still allowing her to drive with 3 moving violations, one for running a red light and two speeding tickets. If the government can suspend a commercial driver with a type b license with just 3 points, which in their case would be just two speeding tickets, why won't they suspend anyone's driving license who has three moving violations within a 3 year period? In my opinion, if Jennifer did in fact have 3 moving violations within a 3 year period, I would also hold the government responsible for the death of the biker for allowing her to continue driving.
Another point to be considered here, is why people don't think of the consequences of their actions before they make a move?! Obviously, Jennifer certainly did not consider the consequences of her action of downloading a ring tone while driving would cause the death of an innocent young man, but she should have thought of that possibility before she made her move!
This is why I am writhing this message, because this point should be screamed loud and clear, "If you drink and drive, or if you fiddle with a cell phone, you could end up killing an innocent pedestrian or biker!"
With regards to drunken driving, I think we should do like Japan, which is that if you get caught drinking and driving, you lose your driver's license for life, and perhaps we should do the same for distracted drivers who kill someone.
Finally, I think all schools should teach chess to all students. Then someday in the near future, we will have a society where people think before they move!