Cellphone Ban is Back on Chapel Hill Town Council Agenda - Sparrow Law Firm

The vote deadlocked last week, but the Chapel Hill Town Council expects the matter to be resolved at next Monday’s meeting. The question is whether the town should adopt a proposed ordinance to ban the use of cellphones — handheld or hands-free — while operating a motor vehicle. If the council approves the measure, talking on a cellphone and driving within town limits will be a secondary traffic offense punishable by a $25 fine for drivers of all ages.

The ban would be the first of its kind, and not just in North Carolina. No other town in the country has adopted a ban on both handheld and hands-free calling. The council has used data from a town in another state that has adopted a handheld calling ban and is also considering a hands-free calling ban.

The proposed ordinance includes exceptions for emergencies and for calls to a parent, child, legal guardian or spouse. If the exceptions sound familiar, it is because they are the same exceptions that apply to the statewide cellphone ban for drivers under 18.

That law illustrates a major point of contention about this proposal: whether the town has the authority to impose such a ban. The state attorney general’s office says it does not. The town’s attorney says it does.

Last fall, an assistant state attorney general wrote that the town’s ordinance would run counter to the state’s intention to provide “a complete and integrated regulatory scheme” in the same field. The ban for new drivers is evidence that the state has a scheme, as is the law against texting or reading email while driving. And, a state-wide approach would be less confusing and more easily enforced than a series of local approaches, according to the state’s opinion.

The town’s attorney countered that the authority question may be one for the courts to decide. A law professor (and former public defender) noted that speed limits and other traffic violations are left up to local governments. The question, the professor said, would be whether the state’s cellphone laws constituted an “integrated regulatory scheme.”

It may be much too early to speculate, though. The town versus state debate can only happen if the town council breaks the deadlock and adopts the ordinance. The proposal has been before the council for two years already.

Source: News & Observer, “Council deadlocks on talking while driving,” Mark Schultz, March 12, 2012