CHAPEL HILL — Chapel Hill is moving forward to create a law banning cellphone use while driving inside the town limits.
Texting at the wheel already is illegal for drivers of all ages in North Carolina, and phone use is illegal for drivers younger than 18. But the Town Council wants to go a step further, voting 6-2 Monday night to draft regulations that would ban talking on a cellphone for drivers of allages. The board will review the regulations after they are written and decide whether to enact the ban later this year.
Council members Gene Pease and Laurin Easthom voted against the ban. Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt was absent for the vote because of illness.
The ban would include a plan for enforcement and how to publicize the new law. It's undecided whether it would include hands-free calling.
The town could enforce a ban on cellphone use while driving on town-owed roads, but the town's authority is less certain on state-owned roads, Town Attorney Ralph Karpinos said.
"There may be a stronger basis for our having authority to regulate cellphones if we restrict cellphone use only on town streets," he said. The argument is a little more questionable if the town tries to regulate cellphones on state streets, he said.
The state owns several main roads throughout town, including Franklin Street, Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, Manning Drive, Estes Drive and Weaver Dairy Road.
The council didn't discuss the UNC-Chapel Hill campus, which is state property.
It doesn't make sense to allow drivers to talk on cellphones on some roads in town but not others, Easthom said.
"I think that's confusing, and I think it's ridiculous, frankly," she said, adding that town should defer to the state to ban cellphone use while driving.
Mayor Pro Tem Jim Ward disagreed. While a statewide ban would be more effective, it shouldn't stop the town from doing something about a practice that science has shown is dangerous, he said.
"I think it's an important way to spur the state legislature to do something about this," Ward said.
The board put off a decision on banning the phones in February 2010 to see what new restrictions the state might impose.
The legislature never acted, and Town Council members dropped the issue.
Then retired UNC professor and former Town Council member Joe Capowski submitted a petition asking the council to outlaw cellphone use while driving earlier this year after he said UNC-CH student Krista Slough was hit by another student who Capowski said was driving while talking on a cellphone.
The driver of the car, Kaylie Nicole Gibson of Apex, and her attorneys say that she was not talking on the phone at the time of the accident and that they have cellphone records to prove it, but the council moved forward anyway to consider a ban.
The ban should include hands-free phoning, Capowski said.
"A hand-hold-only ban would be like a ban on DWI from whiskey but not from vodka," he said. "Analogously, it is not whether the cellphone is in the driver's hand, it is the cognitive distraction of the cellphone itself."
Other residents thought a ban would be a waste and hard to enforce.
"I think a ban would have unintended consequences. ... I think they'll look for ways to hide it, or they'll be driving faster to get to where they're going, ..." John Ager said. "I don't think it is an effective way to solve the problem."
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