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For Whom the Ring Tones

By Sarah Dahnke in News on Dec 5, 2006 6:29PM

We admit, we're a bit behind on this story. But after the News-Gazette article was passed around the Chicagoist offices and set off a heated conversation, we knew we had to put this in a public forum.

Jennifer Stark, a 19-year-old resident of Urbana, struck and killed Matthew Wilhelm, age 25, while he was riding his bike down Highway 130. How? She was DOWNLOADING A RINGTONE while driving and hit him with her car. He died six days later as a result of head injuries from the accident. Stark was in court for the incident last week and was given the maximum sentence for her crime. Manslaughter you say? No. Reckless driving? Think again. State's Attorney Julia Rietz decided that these crimes did not define Stark's actions, so she made the call to charge the teen with improper lane change. The maximum sentence for improper lange change in the state of Illinois is six months of conditional discharge (probation without reporting to an officer), a $1,000 fine and traffic safety school.

2006_12_5_ghostbike.jpgYes, folks. Apparently in the state of Illinois, downloading a ringtone while driving is not considered reckless, even if it results in death. And even if you do happen to kill a pesky biker, you just have to scrape together a G, and you're OK.

Rietz said that the driver had "no reasonable expectation of a bike on the side of the road." We were under the impression that drivers were responsible for taking caution for all types of vehicles on the road, whether they are expected to be there or not, but the state is putting the smack down on that theory.

Despite having three traffic violations prior to the crash with Wilhelm, Ms. Stark gets to keep her license.

Angry bloggers were originally linking to her MySpace page after the verdict, but she deleted it — probably after receiving irate messages about a message she posted regarding the incident that made her come across as a completely insensitive, selfish and spoiled young woman.

Please pray for the family of Matt as they go through the Holidays and please pray for me because I am having a really hard time with this right now.

You poor thing.

Wilhelm was wearing a helmet, just as the Chicagoland Bicycle Federation recommends, but it wasn't enough to protect his head from the impact of the crash. As a result, his parents have decided that bike safety advocacy isn't enough. Illinois needs a new law to properly punish distracted drivers and an education program to prevent distraction while driving. They've formed Matt's Law Coalition, which "is working to introduce new legislation to provide more serious consequences to distracted drivers who kill people due to careless or negligent use of interactive technology, including cell phones."

Our heart goes out to the Wilhelms, and we genuinely hope the law is modified to properly punish drivers such as Stark. And while we're at it, let's get Rietz out of office, huh?

Photo via Old Sarge.