Hush and drive ban debated in Chapel Hill

Staff WriterFebruary 24, 2010 

— Last year, the General Assembly outlawed texting while driving and banned cell-phone use by bus drivers and those under 18, but stopped short of a full ban on phoning while driving.

Now, the Town of Chapel Hill may take the matter into its own hands.

Town Attorney Ralph Karpinos advised the Town Council on Monday night that it has the legal authority to ban cell-phone use on city streets and probably on state-maintained roads, as well. He suggested passing an ordinance covering state roads and then seeing whether it survives a legal challenge.

Staff members at the N.C. League of Municipalities said they were not aware of any other city or town exploring a local prohibition.

At a public forum on the issue, former Town Council member Joe Capowski spoke in favor of a townwide ban.

"Personally, I had a near-miss," Capowski said. "A UNC student talking on her cell phone almost knocked me off my bike."

A recent News & Observer/ABC 11 poll found that 40 percent of North Carolina residents support prohibiting hand-held cell-phone use while driving; and 47 percent support a complete ban, including use of hands-free devices like Bluetooth.

It's not occupied hands but occupied minds that make cell phones dangerous, said Arthur Goodwin, a researcher with the UNC Highway Safety Research Center. "[It's] the cognitive distraction that they cause," he said.

The Town Council is waiting for a report from the General Assembly's Joint Legislative Transportation Oversight Committee before taking action on a local ordinance. That report, due in the spring, will go beyond cell phones to other causes of driver inattention.

"It really won't work as well unless it's a statewide ban," said Councilman Ed Harrison, who, on behalf of his fellow cyclists, last year supported the bill that regulates texting and teenage drivers.

State Rep. E. Nelson Cole, a Rockingham Democrat, is co-chairman of that oversight committee. He said the group will take up the driver-inattention issue in April or May, in time to introduce legislation after the General Assembly reconvenes May 12.

"It's an issue that's becoming a bigger concern all the time," Cole said. "If you're going to be looking down at your keypad, you're not going to be looking at the road. If you're talking on the phone, your attention from the road's going to be taken away."

Assistant Police Chief Bob Overton said officers could enforce the law as they do alcohol violations, by responding to "reasonable suspicion" such as erratic driving.

"We're going to do whatever the community wants us to do," Overton said. "If they give us a law to enforce, we're going to enforce it."

jesse.deconto@newsobserver.com or 919-932-8760

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