Ill. House passes bill for harsher distracted driving penalties

By Amanda Graf

Adding a new ring tone to a cell phone usually costs between $1.50 and $3.00. Downloading a ring tone cost Jennifer Stark of Urbana $1,000. It cost Matt Wilhelm much more.

The Illinois House overwhelmingly approved legislation last week to increase the penalty for distracted driving. House Bill 1382, familiarly called “Matt’s Law,” is a reaction to the death of 25-year-old Matt Wilhelm of Champaign. A fatal collision occurred last September when Wilhelm was riding his bicycle on Illinois 130, east of Urbana. A teenage driver, Jennifer Stark of Urbana, swerved off the road while downloading ring tones to her cell phone and struck and killed Wilhelm.

Stark was charged with improper lane usage. She received the strictest penalty allowed by law at the time: a $1,000 fine and six months probation.

The new bill creates a charge that falls somewhere in between petty traffic violations (like speeding or disobeying a red light) and felony reckless homicide, which implies the driver has willful or wanton disregard for the safety of others. The new charge of “negligent vehicular homicide” would be a Class A misdemeanor and punishable with a much heavier fine and the possibility of up to one year in jail.

According to the bill, “a person acts negligently … if he or she fails to be aware of a substantial and unjustifiable risk of death or injury to others, and that failure constitutes a substantial deviation from the standard of care which a reasonable person would exercise under the circumstances.”

    Sign up for our newsletter!

    Negligent vehicular homicide laws exist in 35 other states according to the Matt’s Law Coalition, an advocacy group led by Wilhelm’s parents. The coalition says 4,300 crashes are caused by driving distractions in the U.S. every year.

    House Bill 633 passed in the House last month. This bill requires that the secretary of state revoke the license of a driver who is convicted of a traffic violation that results in death. Currently the secretary of state does not have this authority. A resolution has also been introduced in the House to create a task force to study distracted driving and report to the General Assembly by July 2008. No vote has been taken on this measure yet.

    State Sen. Mike Frerichs, D-52nd, is sponsoring Senate Bill 1557, which would require driver’s education classes to include curriculum about distracted driving.

    “(Distracted driving) is a problem that will likely become a greater problem as we have a greater range of handheld devices available. An iPod or radio can be distracting, but a video or e-mail, or video iPod in your car can make driving that much more dangerous,” Frerichs said. “We don’t want to wait until there are more accidents out there.”

    Matt’s Law has now being considered by the Rules Committee in the State Senate.