Chapel Hill’s Cell Phone Driving Ban Put On Hold

CHAPEL HILL- The Chapel Hill Town Council voted 7-1 on Monday to delay implementation of the town’s ban on cell phone use while driving until October 1.

Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt said there’s still a slim chance the state Supreme Court could agree to hear the case.

“I personally believe it is unwise to tinker with this until we get some finality,” Kleinschmidt told the council. “I’m also concerned about going ahead and expending resources on education campaigns and other kinds of things that say that there’s a cell phone ban while driving in effect, when it still might be in jeopardy.”

When the council approved the ban back in March of 2012, it was the first in the nation to prohibit the use of both hand-held and hands-free devices behind the wheel.

However, a lawsuit challenging both the cell phone driving ban and the town’s towing regulations lead to an injunction from the Orange County Superior Court that prevented the ban from taking effect last year.

That injunction was dissolved by the state Court of Appeals earlier this month, making it possible for the town to start enforcing the ban next week. Instead, council members agreed they want more time to wrap up the legal proceedings and work on an educational campaign for drivers.

Council member Matt Czajkowski cast the lone vote against the delay. He argued the ban is not likely to be enforced, and said he’d rather see the town focus on enforcing the state-wide ban on texting while driving instead.

“We would be much better off if we as a town said we are going to enforce the anti-texting laws,” said Czajkowski. “But we’re not going to do that. We’re going to educate people on the dangers of using cell phones in cars, with the likelihood of anybody ever being cited somewhere between slim to non-existent.”

Once Chapel Hill’s ban is in place, use of a cell phone while driving inside the town limits would be a secondary offense, meaning police could only charge drivers who had been stopped for other violations. Drivers found to be using a phone behind the wheel could be subject to a $25 fine.

Kurt Ribisl is a professor at UNC’s Gillings Schoool of Global Public Health. He told the council the ban could set a precedent for other communities to follow.

“I think it’s fantastic, I think we’re setting the norm,” said Ribisl. “I think we’re going to see communities across the country passing similar policies like this in the coming years. I’m glad we’re at the forefront and I thank you for your leadership.”

The cell phone driving ban is slated to go into effect on October 1, but the council will have another chance to review the ordinance this fall.

The towing regulations, which limit how much tow operators can charge and require increased signage on private lots, will go into effect next Monday.

“Your Honor, I Saw His Lips Moving!”

“Your Honor, I Saw His Lips Moving!” Can you imagine one of our fine police officers having to appear in court to explain why they issued a ticket for talking on a cell phone and uttering those words? Once again, the topic is hot and the discussion on banning cell phone use while driving includes ALL cell phone use. Understand that this action has been on the back burner, awaiting action by the General Assembly, but there is no North Carolina legislation yet, so the Town Council may move forward anyway.
Today, nine states, D.C. and the Virgin Islands prohibit all drivers from using handheld cell phones while driving. Except for Maryland, all laws are primary enforcement. This means that an officer may cite a driver for using a handheld cell phone without any other traffic offense taking place.  No state bans ALL cell phone use (handheld and hands-free) for all drivers, but 30 states and D.C. prohibit all cell phone use by novice drivers, and bus drivers in 19 states and D.C. may not use a cell phone when passengers are present.
There seems to be plenty of evidence that tells us using a cell phone while driving impairs the driver’s ability, something some call the “distracted driver” problem. Many view the use of Bluetooth devices in the ear or those built into the auto as safer than holding a phone, but research data says that both handheld and hands-free usage creates the same distraction issues.  Therefore, for our safety and the safety of others, we have this call for banning ALL cell phone use.
So how do we do this, just pass an ordinance? The last thing we need is another law on the books that is virtually impossible to enforce. To me, having laws that are difficult, if not impossible to enforce just makes the situation worse, worse because we will continue on that downward slope where people lose respect for our laws.
Do we really want our police officers trying to determine if those moving lips are engaged in a phone conversation, talking to a passenger, or simply singing a song? And how safe is that police officer driving down the street while trying to figure out why those lips are moving? I suspect that a very, very small percentage of phone calls in cars are emergencies or so important that a delay would have an impact. Let’s face it; we talk on the phone while driving because we can!  Making it illegal so as to change our behavior only works if you can enforce it.  We need a better solution!
I have yet to hear of anyone with a good enforcement plan for an ordinance banning hands-free phones. As a first step we need to educate people on the dangers, knowing in advance that it won’t solve the issue in its entirety, but it can help. We need to ensure that whatever we do doesn’t lead to another ignored law, or worse, more disrespect for our laws. And whatever we do, we surely don’t want any of our police officers to have to utter, “Your Honor, I pulled him over because I saw his lips moving.”  

What do you think?  Leave your comments below.