Chapel Hill Council delays cell phone ban, keeps towing rules

tgrubb@newsobserver.comJune 17, 2013 

— Town towing rules will go into effect Monday, but the Town Council has delayed a ban on using cell phones while driving until Oct. 1.

Town staff will continue to plan a campaign to educate drivers about the dangers of using a cell phone while behind the wheel, but the council voted 7-1 to postpone a ban on handheld and hands-free cell phone use until the state Supreme Court has had time to decide whether it will hear an appeal of the lawsuit against the town.

“I personally believe it’s unwise to tinker with this until we get some finality,” Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt said.

Council member Matt Czajkowski voted against the delay.

“We would be much better off if we, as a town, said we’re going to enforce the anti-texting law, but we’re not going to do that. We’re going to educate people on the dangers of using cell phones in cars,” Czajkowski said.

George King, owner of George’s Towing & Recovery, sued the town last year over the towing rules and the cell phone ban. Chief District Court Judge Orlando Hudson issued a temporary halt to enforcing both rules on May 2, 2012. In August, Hudson sided with King, who claimed the towing ordinance was an unconstitutional regulation of trade and that the state already regulates cell phone use while driving.

The state law prohibits drivers under 18 years old from using their cell phones while driving. The state also prohibits texting and driving for all drivers.

The town appealed the case, and the N.C. Court of Appeals overturned the decision June 4. The three-member appeals court panel said the town has the authority to regulate towing when it affects public safety and welfare.

Starting Monday, towing companies in Chapel Hill will be able to charge a $125 maximum towing fee, accept credit card payments and call police when they tow a car. Owners of private parking lots also will have to post signs alerting drivers to the rules. The council approved the rules last year in response to complaints about “predatory” towing from downtown lots. The complaints included: drivers being charged $200 or more to retrieve their cars; being towed minutes after parking in a lot, even when patronizing the associated business; and tow operators refusing to take credit or debit cards.

The appeals court, however, did not rule on the merits of the cell phone ban. The case would be more appropriate to consider if a driver charged with violating the rule filed a lawsuit, the court said.

Chapel Hill’s cell phone ban applies to all streets in the town limits, including state-owned roads. Drivers may make emergency calls and calls to a spouse, parent or child. The penalty is a $25 fine, but a driver has to be stopped first for another traffic violation, such as speeding.

Kurt Ribisl, a UNC professor of public health, was one of three people who urged the council to let the cell phone rules go into effect.

Ribisl said the dangers of cell phone use while driving hit home for the school’s faculty and students when a female student lost both parents in a cell phone-related traffic accident.

“I think we’re setting the norm. I think you’re going to see communities across the nation setting policies like this,” he said.

Grubb: 919-932-8746

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