Chapel Hill council bans cell-phone use while driving

kferral@newsobserver.comMarch 27, 2012 

— Talking on a cell phone while driving in Chapel Hill becomes illegal June 1.

The town became the first in the nation to pass an ordinance outlawing talking on both hand-held and hands-free cell phones while driving. After two years of discussion on the issue, the council voted 5-4 Monday night.

Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt and council members Gene Pease, Laurin Easthom and Matt Czajkowski opposed the measure.

The council deadlocked 4-4 on the ban earlier this month. It required a second reading Monday night. Council member Ed Harrison, who was absent during the first reading, cast the deciding vote.

Harrison, an avid cyclist, said much of the odd driving he encounters is caused by people distracted by talking on a cell phone.

"[It] is not by people who are eating things or combing their hair or putting on lipstick," he said. "It's by people who are talking on a cell phone and not seeing me."

The ordinance applies to all streets town-wide, including state-owned roads. Drivers would be allowed to make emergency calls, and calls with a spouse, parent or child. Violators will be fined $25.

Council member Donna Bell said the ban is a good first step in continuing a conversation about driving safety. She said she hopes the General Assembly will soon follow with a statewide law.

"I wish that this was broader, but I think that this is a first step," she said.

Council member Laurin Easthom opposed the ban and clarified that it does outlaw talking on all types of phones while driving, including wireless systems in new cars.

"If you have a Bluetooth, if you have a relatively new car with a dashboard that allows you to talk wirelessly, you can't use it," she said.

After the vote, she said that the town needs to put signs alerting motorists to the ban at every major road entrance into town.

The ban defies an opinion from the state attorney general's office that the town lacks the authority to prohibit talking on cell phones while driving.

Town Attorney Ralph Karpinos wrote the state attorney general last year asking if the town had the statutory authority to regulate cell phone use.

Assistant Attorney General Jess Mekeel said no.

In a Nov. 2, letter, Mekeel said the town may not regulate activity in a field where the state intends to provide "a complete and integrated regulatory scheme." He cited the state's existing ban on cell phone use by drivers under 18 and school bus drivers, as well ban on anyone reading email or texting while driving.

"An ordinance by the Town of Chapel Hill regulating motorists' use of cell phones is preempted by State law, and therefore, unenforceable," he wrote.

Courts in Pennsylvania have struck down similar cell phone laws at the local level, he said.

Chapel Hill Police Chief Chris Blue has said a ban would be difficult to enforce since it would require officers to search a motorists' cell phone. Police would have a heavy burden to prove a violation occurred, he said.

But Karpinos has said a court would have to decide if the town can enact a local ban. There is no statutory or case law that directly prohibits a local ban, he wrote in a memo.

Texting at the wheel is illegal for drivers of all ages in North Carolina, and phone use is illegal for drivers under 18.

This is the second time the council had considered a ban. Former council member Joe Capowski petitioned the council last year, asking for the ban after a UNC-Chapel Hill student was hit by another student, who Capowski said was on the phone.

While the details of that accident have been disputed, the council continued discussion on a ban. In February 2010, it put off action on a similar proposal by Capowski to outlaw phone use for all drivers on local streets.

The council decided to wait for action by a legislative committee in Raleigh that was considering whether to strengthen restrictions on drivers' phone use across the state.

The legislature never acted, and Town Council members dropped the issue until Capowski submitted a new petition.

The National Transportation Safety Board sent a letter of support to Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt in February supporting a ban.

Evanston, Illinois, has a ban on hands-held cell phones while driving and is currently considering banning hands-free as well.

The home of Northwestern University has a population of 77,000 residents compared to Chapel Hill's 58,000, she said. In the two years since it enacted the ban on hand-held cellphones while driving, accidents have decreased 17.6 percent, Chapel Hill Town Council member Penny Rich has said.

Evanston fines people $50 per offense, up to $200 if a person using a cellphone gets into an accident.

Ferral: 919-932-8746

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