After two years of discussion, the town of Chapel Hill, NC has finally made it illegal to use cell phones while driving. It will be the first town in the nation to pass an ordinance outlawing talking on both hand-held and hands-free cell phones while driving. The ordinance will take effect on June 1, 2012.
The new ordinance will apply to all streets town-wide, including state-owned roads. Drivers will be allowed to make emergency calls and calls with a spouse, parent or child. Persons caught violating this new ordinance will be fined $25.00.
There are some who oppose the new ordinance. One major issue is the fact that the new ordinance bans all cell phones, even those that are not handheld. Many people believe that using Bluetooth and other devices that are not handheld are safe to operate in a vehicle while driving. Some newer vehicles are even built with Bluetooth to help keep the driver focused on operating the vehicle. Residents in Chapel Hill would not be allowed to use these features.
Another issue with the new ordinance is whether or not the town has the authority to regulate cell phone use. When asked this question, the Assistant Attorney General 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 as ban 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.
Courts in Pennsylvania have struck down similar cell phone laws at the local level. However, there is no case law for this in North Carolina and the courts will have to decide if the town can enact the local ban.
On the other side, there are many people that support the cell phone ban and believe it will make the streets a safer place. It is believed that cell phones are the number one cause of distracted driving and this ordinance could save numerous lives. They believe this ban is a great starting point and hope a statewide ban will follow in the future.