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updated: 4/21/2011 6:35 PM

'It's an epidemic' Distracted driver opponents want tougher laws

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  • Organizers of a summit in Addison called for tougher laws to stop drivers from using cellphones while driving.

       Organizers of a summit in Addison called for tougher laws to stop drivers from using cellphones while driving.
    Jeff Knox | Staff Photographer

  • Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood

      Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood
    AP File Photo

  • In 2006, Chuck and Gloria Wilhelm lost their son Matthew, who was riding his bike and was killed by a driver who was looking for ring tones on her cellphone. They attended the Illinois Distracted Driving Summit, held at the Shriners Conference Center in Addison.

       In 2006, Chuck and Gloria Wilhelm lost their son Matthew, who was riding his bike and was killed by a driver who was looking for ring tones on her cellphone. They attended the Illinois Distracted Driving Summit, held at the Shriners Conference Center in Addison.
    Daniel White | Staff Photographer

  • John Cullerton, Illinois Senate president, addresses the Illinois Distracted Driving Summit, held at the Shriners Conference Center in Addison.

       John Cullerton, Illinois Senate president, addresses the Illinois Distracted Driving Summit, held at the Shriners Conference Center in Addison.
    Daniel White | Staff Photographer

 
 

A moment's thoughtlessness can equal a lifetime of suffering, victims of distracted driving testified Thursday at a summit in Addison.

And they challenged legislators to enact tougher laws to prevent people from yakking on cellphones while behind the wheel.

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Matthew Wilhelm, 25, died in downstate Illinois while cycling when a teenager veered off the roadway as she downloaded ring tones for her phone in September 2006.

"He was flipped up in the air and landed head first on the pavement," said Wilhelm's mother, Gloria.

"It took part of my heart. The only way to live with a broken heart is to make sure people understand the way they use cellphones doesn't only endanger their lives but the lives of innocent people like Matt."

Another victim was John Sligting, a firefighter, father and Army reservist.

A 17-year-old driver was so busy talking on a cellphone that she blew the stop sign and killed the 56-year-old Round Lake man, who was heading home from work on his beloved motorcycle in June 2007 in Libertyville.

"Distracted driving is an epidemic," said U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who joined state lawmakers, police and educators at the summit organized by the National Safety Council and the advocacy group FocusDriven.

The National Safety Council estimates that at least 28 percent of all traffic crashes are linked to motorists using cellphones or texting.

Holding up a Blackberry, LaHood said, "people think they can use these anytime, anywhere."

The state recently enacted legislation banning texting while driving. Illinois prohibits cellphone use while in school or construction zones and by drivers under age 19.

But the National Safety Council is seeking a statewide ban and Wilhelm's parents are pushing the General Assembly to pass a law that makes negligent driving resulting in fatalities a misdemeanor.

Senate President John Cullerton, a Chicago Democrat, and state Rep. John D'Amico told the crowd that continued lobbying from safety groups and victims' organizations is needed to convince a majority of legislators to tighten restrictions.

"We need to work on it and gain support," said D'Amico, a Democrat whose district includes the North suburbs. "There is some opposition. The texting law seemed like common sense but a lot of people voted against it."

Despite well-publicized distracted driving accidents such as the death of a Lake Zurich woman whose motorcycle was hit by a driver preoccupied with painting her nails, motorists still are behaving badly, police officials said.

That's why Schaumburg is using public service announcements to get the word out, Lt. Kristine Provenzano said. "We're looking to educate people as much as enforce the new laws," she said.

And it's not just cellphones and Blackberries, Itasca Police Chief Scott Heher noted. "People are eating while they drive. They're putting on makeup. Fiddling with the radio."

And some drivers never seem to learn, Heher added. On his daily commute to work, "I see the same people doing the same things."

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