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Family seeks harsher penalties for negligent motorists

Family seeks harsher penalties for negligent motorists

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URBANA - The family of a bicyclist who died after being hit by a driver busy downloading cell phone ring tones is pushing for a new state law with stiffer penalties for distracted motorists.

Gloria and Chuck Wilhelm are seeking legislation that would provide jail time for drivers involved in fatal accidents because of careless or negligent use of cell phones, iPods or other technology.

"I never wanted to be doing this, but I am," said Gloria Wilhelm, of Bourbonnais.

Her son, 25-year-old Matthew Wilhelm of Peoria, died of head injuries Sept. 8 after he was hit from behind by a teenage driver while bicycling on Illinois 130 east of Urbana.

Authorities say Jennifer Stark was so far off the road that she hit Wilhelm with the driver's side of her car. He was wearing a helmet.

Stark, 19, of Urbana, pleaded guilty to improper lane usage and on Wednesday was given the maximum sentence of six months' conditional discharge, a form of probation, and a $1,000 fine. She also was ordered to attend traffic safety school.

Champaign County State's Attorney Julia Rietz said Stark was charged with a traffic offense due to a "serious hole" in state law. She said Stark's actions did not fit the legal definition of recklessness to sustain charges of reckless homicide or reckless driving.

"This is a tragic case and one which has demonstrated to us there are many things we can't adequately resolve in this building, unfortunately. The law doesn't give us an adequate remedy to address the loss to the Wilhelms and society," she said.

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.

"We've never been to Springfield before and knocked on doors. No one stopped us and everyone opened up doors. No one said, 'We can't help you.' We are very positive," Gloria Wilhelm said.

Champaign County Judge Richard Klaus told Stark that her sentence didn't fit the crime.

"I can only apply the law I have in front of me, not as I wish it would be," Klaus said.

Stark declined to comment after sentencing. She sent a letter to the (Champaign) News-Gazette in September, apologizing to the Wilhelm family and taking responsibility for her actions.

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