New law to change drivers ed curriculum

By Jonathan Jacobson

In the wake of an Urbana resident’s death, Gov. Blagojevich signed a new law on Aug. 21 that requires all public drivers education courses to contain a distracted driving safety unit.

The mandate was inspired by the death of Matt Wilhelm, a 25-year-old University graduate student who was killed on his bicycle by a driver downloading ringtones last September.

“I think anything we do, especially with the youth, to help educate them on the road, we’re all better off,” said Chuck Wilhelm, Matt’s father.

Sen. Mike Frerichs, D-Gifford, the bill’s Senate sponsor, said that distracted driving is a very important issue. Rather than punishing people for the problem, Frerichs said, the best solution is to educate young drivers.

“Studies have been conducted that have shown distracted driving in many cases to be more distracting than drunken driving,” Frerichs said. “I think it’s a very common sense bill here.”

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    Although no Illinois House members interviewed disagreed about the general purpose of the bill, some said they believe it is one in a series of unfunded mandates on schools.

    “Once again, the state’s telling a local school district to mandate this when they could do it if they wanted to themselves,” said Rep. Bill Mitchell, R-Forsyth, who sits on the Drivers Education and Safety Committee. “This is an issue best left to local government.”

    However, Rep. Naomi Jakobsson, D-Urbana, the House sponsor of the bill, said she believes that distracted driving is a much more universal subject.

    “(The bill) may have come about because of a local issue, but it is a statewide, a nationwide issue,” she said. “When you’re behind a wheel, that should be your primary focus.”

    However, Frerichs said the law may contain a loophole: Private drivers education courses might be exempt.

    Although the state has the authority to control public schools’ drivers education curriculum, Frerichs said control over private driving schools is less certain.

    But two local private drivers education providers said they already offer a distracted driving segment in their curriculum.

    “We’ve been teaching a segment on distraction since day one,” said Tony Martin, owner of M and M Drivers School in Champaign.

    The new law was accompanied by a series of other laws meant to improve road safety.

    One of the bills currently pending as a result of Wilhelm’s death would punish distracted drivers by adding the charge of “negligent vehicular homicide.” The charge would be a Class A misdemeanor and carry a fine as well as the possibility of up to a year in jail.

    “We need stronger measures on distracted driving,” Wilhelm said. “Nobody wants to see another accident like this, but they’re still happening.”