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Chapel Hill deadlocks on landmark hands-free cell phone ban – for now

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Chapel Hill narrowly missed claiming another national title Monday night.

Hold on there, hoops fans – I am talking about driving, but not on a basketball court.

This event took place at the Chapel Hill Town Council meeting. At question was a proposal to ban cell phone use while driving in the city. The council also had the option of having the ordinance include a ban on hands-free devices. A complete ban, says the town attorney, would make the North Carolina college town the first municipality in the nation to prohibit hands-free cell calls while driving.

Oregon DOT photostream

Five city council votes on March 26 could place a ban on all cell phone use while driving in Chapel Hill.

With one member of the council being absent, the contest ended in a tie, with a 4-4 vote. But the issue of cell phones and distracted driving will come before the council for a vote again on March 26, the News & Observer of Raleigh reported.

The ordinance would make driving while talking on cell phone a secondary offense, which means a driver could be ticketed for it when stopped for another violation. The rule would make exceptions for emergency calls. Offending drivers would be fined $25.

Furthermore, passing the ban would improve safety beyond the city limits of Chapel Hill, according to the town attorney, Ralph Karpinos.

“It is possible that … the consideration and/or enactment of local regulations will prompt further discussion of this matter at the General Assembly,” Karpinos wrote in a memorandum on the ordinance.

I think he’s right. And I think the well-known name of Chapel Hill just might score some points beyond the boundaries of North Carolina as well.

Already, the National Transportation Safety Board has strongly recommended a nationwide ban of the use of portable electronic devices, including hands-free devices, with a vote Dec. 13, 2011. The NTSB sent that recommendation in a letter to all 50 states and the District of Columbia in February.

Also in February, the U.S. Department of Transportation issued proposed guidelines to auto manufacturers to develop technology that will keep drivers from being distracted by the communications devices built into their vehicles. More guidelines being considered by the DOT’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration would address the use of portable personal devices like smart phones, electronic readers like iPads and Kindles, and portable GPS’s.

Whether the town of Chapel Hill has the authority to regulate phone use while driving is not clear. According to one assistant attorney general, the state’s authority to establish uniform rules regarding cell phone use while driving outweighs the authority of a local ordinance. But the report by the News & Observer of Raleigh pointed out that other legal experts say the issue might wind up being decided in court. That would likely happen when someone challenged a citation for violating a local cell phone regulation, according to one professor of public law and government at UNC-Chapel Hill.

And there is a precedent, albeit in another state – in another college town. In 2009, police stepped up enforcement of a local ban on hand-held phones in Evanston, Illinois, home of Northwestern University. Since then, injury accidents have decreased by 17.6 percent, the head of the Evanston Police Department traffic bureau told the Chicago Sun-Times. Now Evanston officials are looking at a proposal to expand the ban to hands-free devices.

At any rate, the rematch on the phone-ban debate in Chapel Hill is set for March 26. At the second reading of the proposal, five votes will be enough to clinch the decision, one way or another.

I’m rooting for the council to make the call on the side of safety.

1 Comment

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  1. Annie says:
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    I have often wondered why talking on a hands-free device while driving could be more distracting than talking with a passenger. But I can tell I’m less focused when I use my Bluetooth headset as opposed to when I’m talking to somebody riding with me. Your article finally got my curiosity in gear (so to speak), and I found an article in a Harvard newsletter online about it. In short, passengers can see what the driver is seeing and will stop talking or help navigate if there is some kind of traffic problem. Here’s the address — http://www.health.harvard.edu/newsletters/Harvard_Mental_Health_Letter/2010/September/why-cell-phone-conversations-distract-drivers