RALEIGH — The state Supreme Court struck down Chapel Hill’s ban on using cellphones while driving Thursday.
In a related case addressed in the same ruling, the court said the town can set some rules for tow-truck companies removing cars from private parking lots.
As written, Chapel Hill’s cellphone ban would have been enforced only if a driver was stopped for another violation. A driver using either a hand-held or hands-free device behind the wheel would have paid a $25 fine.
The town’s ban would have been one of the strongest in the country. Several states ban the use of hand-held cellphones while driving, and many more, including North Carolina, prohibit young drivers from using either type of device while behind the wheel. No states ban hands-free cellphone use.
The town’s attorneys argued the town’s ban would protect public health, safety and welfare. However, the court said local governments do not have the authority to pass their own rules, because the state already regulates cellphone use while driving.
North Carolina laws prohibit school bus drivers and those under the age of 18 from using a cellphone while driving.
“In conclusion, we recognize municipalities’ need to protect their citizens,” Justice Paul Newby wrote for the Supreme Court, “but we are unwilling to construe our General Statutes to give municipalities unfettered power to regulate in the name of health, safety, or welfare.”
The ruling was disappointing but not surprising, said Joe Capowski, a former Chapel Hill Town Council member who lobbied for the cellphone ban.
“Nothing that the N.C. Supreme Court did makes it any safer to use your cellphone while driving,” he said Thursday.
He and others had asked the town last year to press forward with the case and look for more opportunities to educate the public about distracted driving. Multiple studies have shown that hands-free cellphone use while driving is no more safe than using a hand-held phone.
The N.C. Court of Appeals did not address the town’s authority to enact the ban when it upheld the ordinance last year. The case against it would have been stronger had a tow-truck driver cited for violating the ban challenged it, the appeals court said.
Towing company owner George King argued the ban put an extra burden on his drivers, because the town’s towing laws require them to notify police within 15 minutes of picking up a vehicle. The drivers can’t do that without breaking the rules on using a cellphone while driving, he said.
The Supreme Court agreed, saying “the ordinance’s alleged substantial encumbrance on economic activity constitutes a manifest threat of irreparable harm” on towing companies.
The court did support some local rules on towing operations in Chapel Hill, including a town requirement that private property owners post signs warning drivers they could be towed and another requiring truck drivers to let police know when they tow a car.
The town does not, however, have the power to set towing fees or stop companies from passing on credit card fees to drivers, the court said.
“Unlike the signage and notice provisions, there is no rational relationship between regulating fees and protecting the health, safety, or welfare,” Newby wrote. “Further, the fee schedule provision implicates the fundamental right to ‘earn a livelihood.’ ”
King’s attorney, Thomas Stark, said they are pleased with the court’s ruling. King has maintained good relations with Chapel Hill police and continues to notify them when cars are towed, he said.
Chapel Hill Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt said he was shocked to read the court’s decision. It gives tow companies “the ability to charge whatever they want whenever they want,” he said.
While the rules were suspended last year pending the court case, some drivers reported being charged $200 to $300 to retrieve their towed cars, town officials have said. Stark said he’s heard the tow rates have settled at roughly $180.
Kleinschmidt predicted the ruling would leave more drivers waiting in the dark for a ride to an ATM for cash and then to pick up their cars, though tow-truck companies must also take credit cards. Many towing companies in Chapel Hill have tow lots that are located several miles from town.
The council could look at tweaking its sign rules in the future, he said.