History is Made: Cellphone Ban Passed by Chapel Hill Town Council

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In our March 21 post, we discussed a cellphone ban proposed by the Chapel Hill Town Council. The council had scheduled a vote for March 26 after deadlocking. This past week, the council adopted the proposal: Handheld or hands-free use of a cellphone while driving will officially be a traffic violation in June.

The penalty is a $25 fine, but police must pull drivers over for another suspected violation before charging them under the cellphone ordinance. And, drivers must give police permission to check their phones to see if they were in fact on a call. If a driver refuses, police will need a search warrant before they can proceed.

Some may support the ban in theory but have little faith that the ban will change anything. They have enough trouble enforcing the ban for drivers age 18 and under, said one Chapel Hill official. Police have not written a single citation under that law since 2010.

Plus, the ordinance includes exceptions for emergency calls, calls to a health provider and calls to a family member. Even if an officer can prove that the driver was on the phone, chances are slim that drivers will admit to talking to someone outside of family, physician or emergency personnel, another official said.

While police say they will enforce the new law, they admit that they don’t see themselves writing a lot of tickets. Perhaps the most positive impact will be an increased awareness of cellphone use while driving. Everything from college campuses to tourist brochures will include information about the ban; the more the word is out, the more likely honest people are not to violate the ordinance.

Opponents see a host of problems on the near horizon. First, some question the authority of the city to pass such a ban. Second, opponents are not shy about reminding town leadership that research has not shown that cellphone bans actually reduce the number of accidents.

The council took the first step by adopting the ordinance. The courts will hear the challenges in due course.

Source: News & Observer, “Phone ban presents challenge for police,” Katelyn Ferral, April 1, 2012