Law proposed to prevent negligent driving

By Emily Sokolik

When Gloria and Chuck Wilhelm speak to classes at Centennial High School in Champaign about the death of their son, Matthew, the attention from students makes the Wilhelms confident they are furthering their fight against negligent driving. The death of their 25-year-old son on Sept. 8, 2006, led the Bourbonnais couple to begin campaigning for stricter laws aimed at careless drivers.

“Matt’s Law,” or the Negligent Vehicular Homicide Law, is proposed legislation that will impose serious penalties on distracted drivers involved in fatal accidents due to the use of cell phones and other interactive technology.

Matthew was struck and killed by a teenage driver while riding his bicycle along an Urbana highway. The driver, Jennifer Stark, 19, admitted to police she was downloading ring tones onto her cell phone at the time of the collision.

No law in Illinois exists to deal with Stark’s crime. As a result, she was charged with improper lane usage and ordered to pay a fine of $1,000.

Since his death, Matthew’s parents have taken a two-sided approach in making the roads safer for both drivers and pedestrians.

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“We’re improving safety with both legislation and education,” Gloria Wilhelm said.

The Wilhelms held a plan of action meeting last Thursday in Urbana to discuss future initiatives related to “Matt’s Law.” Committees were formed at the meeting to deal with different aspects of the project including communication with insurance companies, as well as local parent-teacher associations. Gloria Wilhelm said the committees plan to meet periodically to evaluate their progress.

The couple recently started visiting high schools and driver education classes in Champaign to inform beginning drivers about the dangers of using cell phones while driving. Gloria Wilhelm said the students are deeply touched by Matthew’s story.

“You can hear a pin drop in the room,” she said. “A lot of them are stunned, saddened and surprised. They want to know what’s going to happen as a result of this.”

The Wilhelms will continue to meet with elected officials in Springfield to discuss the Negligent Vehicular Homicide Law, which 35 other states currently have in place. Julia Rietz, Champaign County state’s attorney, helped draft the law, which the Wilhelms began campaigning for in November. They said they are hoping to see “Matt’s Law” passed in the spring.

“I feel like we are the pioneers,” Gloria Wilhelm said. “We are the forefront of something big that’s going to happen.”