N.C. Supreme Court To Review Chapel Hill’s Cell Phone Ban And Tow Rules

CHAPEL HILL- The North Carolina Supreme Court announced Friday it will hear the case involving the Town Of Chapel Hill’s cell phone driving ban and towing rules.

In 2012 the town passed a ban on cell phone use while driving and approved new regulations for tow truck operators that capped fees and mandated more signage in lots.

George King of George’s Towing sued the town in protest, saying the rules are unduly burdensome to his business.

Both ordinances were set to take effect last summer, but King’s lawsuit has put the regulations on hold indefinitely. A 2013 ruling by the N.C. Court of Appeals held that the town could enforce the ordinances, but King’s request for review by the state Supreme Court has put both on hold once again.

You can read the Town’s full press release here.

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.


Follow-up Questions: Towing, Teachers, & Opportunity Cost

Word that Chapel Hill is going to continue the legal fight and appeal a judge’s ruling against a planned cell phone ban (including hands-free use) and a towing ordinance prompts a few questions:

First of all, I keep hearing and reading that downtown businesses must use towing companies and aggressive towing tactics in order to maintain spaces for their patrons.  If this is the reason, why does towing persist after the business has closed?  Why not resume it 30 minutes prior to opening?  Again, I ask, what’s in it for the businesses?  They not only allow it; they encourage it.  

Now to the appeal of the cell phone ban.  A recent Chapelboro news story quotes Chapel Hill Town Council member Penny Rich as saying town attorney Ralph Karpinos told the council the legal battle won’t incur any additional cost (emphasis mine) as it will all be taken care of by in-house attorneys.  I had written about the costs of pursuing this ban under my “Savvy Spender” banner, saying I believe the town has better things on which to spend my money. That was based on a pre-vote opinion from the N.C. Attorney General that the town would not prevail in court.  

I was no academic star in my required economics courses but I do remember the concept of opportunity cost.  Forgive my inability to convey this elegantly but as I understand it, opportunity cost is what one gives up when one chooses an alternative course of action.  So while the town may not incur any additional cost by using outside counsel, there clearly is some sort of cost in what else town attorneys won’t be doing.  In other words, it’s highly unlikely they’d be sitting around doing nothing if they were not tasked with pursuing this so, as a taxpayer, I’d love to know what’s not getting done instead?  That’s my cost.

Finally the start of school brings us to what is apparently the denouement in the saga of the involuntarily transferred teachers Anne Thompson and Bert Wartski.   They fought all the way to the courthouse and lost and are now leaving their longtime base at Chapel Hill High School.  I ask again the question I raised weeks ago:  In the case of Anne Thompson,  who is planning to retire after this coming school year and who just suffered the loss of her husband, why is there no mercy, no leniency, no ability to stand down?  

My exclusion of Mr. Wartski is due only to the more lamentable circumstances of Mrs. Thompson.  Shouldn’t Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools demonstrate a kindness that leadership must want to see from its students?   What a great way to set an example that the bigger kid doesn’t always have to win. 

If you can answer any of these questions, write to me at Donnabeth@Chapelboro.com