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Chapel Hill bans cell phone use by drivers

By Susan Dickson
Staff Writer

CHAPEL HILL – After more than two years of debate, the Chapel Hill Town Council on Monday voted 5-4 to approve an ordinance that will ban cell phone use while driving in town.

The ban, which applies to the use of both handheld and hands-free phones, is the first of its kind nationwide, according to Town Attorney Ralph Karpinos, who drafted the ordinance.

Council members Donna Bell, Ed Harrison Penny Rich, Lee Storrow and Jim Ward voted for the ordinance, while Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt and council members Matt Czajkowski, Laurin Easthom and Gene Pease voted against it.
The ordinance, which will go into effect June 1, prohibits the use of cell phones or any additional technology, like cameras or music players, while operating a car. The ordinance proposes a $25 fine for violation.

Under the ordinance, a driver could not be cited for violating the ordinance unless an officer had cause to stop the driver for a violation of another law. The ordinance does not apply to drivers using a phone to communicate with emergency officials in an emergency situation or to drivers communicating with their parents, children, legal guardians or spouses.

Karpinos said he included the exceptions in the proposed ordinance because he felt they would give it a better chance of being upheld if challenged on the basis of preemption by state law. However, an assistant state attorney general told the town in an opinion letter that he didn’t believe the town had the authority to enact such an ordinance.

Along with the ban, the council directed staff to prepare a public education program on the risks associated with cell phone use by drivers. Town Manager Roger Stancil said road signs would be installed at entrances to town as part of the program.

The council had previously deadlocked 4-4 on the ordinance at a meeting from which Harrison was absent. Some council members questioned the town’s authority in regulating cell phone use by drivers, as well as the town’s ability to enforce such an ordinance.

Meanwhile, some Carrboro leaders say they’re waiting to see how the ban plays out, but would consider a similar ordinance in Carrboro.

“I think there’s always a certain logic to matters like that having some consistency between the towns. That said, our board has not discussed it, and I don’t know what our attorney’s position would be, if he would have the same position as the Chapel Hill attorney in terms of the legal issues,” Carrboro Board of Aldermen member Dan Coleman said. “My own feeling is that there is value in increased safety in a ban like this, not necessarily because of whether it is or isn’t enforceable, but because of the increase in awareness.”

“Obviously they’re out of the gate on this, and we’re going to see how this ban works in Chapel Hill,” he continued. “We’ll be in a position some months or whenever from now to consider whether that’s something that would work in Carrboro.”

Board member Randee Haven-O’Donnell said she too would like to consider an ordinance for Carrboro, noting research that likens talking on a cell phone while driving to drunk driving.

“I think that the research is there that the cell phone use is distracting,” she said, admitting that she knew enforcement of such an ordinance could be tricky.

“That doesn’t mean that I don’t think that it’s important, because especially in a town like Chapel Hill with fairly young drivers … who do not have that long experience behind the wheel, driving with handheld devices is a terrible way to learn.”

In December, the National Transportation Safety Board called for the first-ever nationwide ban on driver use of portable electronic devices. Texting while driving and the use of cell phones by drivers under 18 are both already illegal in North Carolina.

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  1. Joe Hill

    The law is a joke.

    All a driver has to say is that he or she was calling his spouse / mother / father /child
    and the police cannot give a ticket.

    This state has more bad drivers than anywhere I have ever lived, and their sense of
    entitlement with respect to eating, using a cell phone, etc. is absurd.