As of June 1, talking on a cellphone while driving in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, will be illegal. Period. No ifs, ands, or hands-free headsets about it.
That’s right, according to the News Observer, the Chapel Hill City Council has become the city the first in the nation to ban all forms of cellphone use while operating a vehicle. It was a strongly discussed and divided issue though. The News Observer reports that it was on the table for two years and only passed by one vote — 5-4:
The council deadlocked 4-4 on the ban earlier this month. It required a second reading Monday night. Council member Ed Harrison, who was absent during the first reading, cast the deciding vote.
Harrison, an avid cyclist, said much of the odd driving he encounters is caused by people distracted by talking on a cell phone.
“[It] is not by people who are eating things or combing their hair or putting on lipstick,” he said. “It’s by people who are talking on a cell phone and not seeing me.”
Council member Donna Bell said the ban is a good first step in continuing a conversation about driving safety. She said she hopes the General Assembly will soon follow with a statewide law.
“I wish that this was broader, but I think that this is a first step,” she said.
Violators will only be fined $25 and there are some exceptions to the rule, such as making an emergency call or when phoning spouses and children.
Still, the News Observer reports that it may not even be within the city’s jurisdiction to regulate talking on a cellphone to this extent and cites the burden of enforcing it:
Town Attorney Ralph Karpinos wrote the state attorney general last year asking if the town had the statutory authority to regulate cell phone use.
Assistant Attorney General Jess Mekeel said no.
In a Nov. 2, letter, Mekeel said the town may not regulate activity in a field where the state intends to provide “a complete and integrated regulatory scheme.” He cited the state’s existing ban on cell phone use by drivers under 18 and school bus drivers, as well ban on anyone reading email or texting while driving.
“An ordinance by the Town of Chapel Hill regulating motorists’ use of cell phones is preempted by State law, and therefore, unenforceable,” he wrote.
Watch this news report with some of the discussion about the ordinance before it was passed:
Even its opponents, the News Observer states that the National Transportation Safety Board has sent the city a letter supporting the ban. Last year, we reported NTSB calling for all states to enact similar bans on handsets and hands-free cellphones.