March 29, 2012 at 1:13 PM ET
Unless it's an emergency, drivers who talk on their cellphones -- even hands-free -- in Chapel Hill, North Carolina will face a $25 fine, but the first town in the U.S. to impose this kind of ban may be overstepping its authority with the state.
On Monday, the town council voted 5-4 in favor of an ordinance that prohibits any kind of cellphone use while driving.
NBC17 reported that this ruling, however, may exceed the town's jurisdiction. The state's assistant Attorney General Jess D. Mekeel wrote in a letter that the state "has preemptive authority to regulate the use of mobile phones by motorists within the state of North Carolina. It is my opinion that an ordinance by the Town of Chapel Hill regulating motorists’ use of cell phones is preempted by State law and, therefore, unenforceable."
Chapel Hill's town attorney disagrees with that interpretation, NBC17 said.
I've reached out to the town council and mayor, and will update if and when we hear from them. I called Ed Harrison, the council member who cast the deciding vote (and who was absent during the first stalemate vote earlier this month). He declined to comment.
Chapel Hill has a population of more than 51,000 and covers 21.1 square miles, with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill as one of its major employers.
The ban would begin June 1 and has already ignited a local firestorm. Some took their elected officials to task via emails, which are available at the council's website. Here's an excerpt from one objection to the decision:
I think we all agree that texting, putting on make-up, shaving, stuffing a big sandwich in your mouth (dashboard dining), talking on a hand-held cellphone, messing with a radio or a GPS device, while driving are all distracting. Interestingly, some of these will still be legal come June 1 in the great town of Chapel Hill. If you truly believed that hands-free cellphone is so dangerous, why would talking to your parent, spouse, or children (the exceptions you made) make it less dangerous. Or how about talking to your fellow passengers? Can we all just use some common sense and repeal this ruling.
I consider myself a liberal and progressive but this ruling went too far. All I could think of was Jessie Helms comment about putting a fence around our town. You just made us look like extreme and fringe lunatics. Thank you for that.
Those who opposed the ban also pointed to the difficulty of enforcing the ban on the town's roads and the cost of such vigilance.
And then, there were messages like this, in support of the ban:
I am well aware of the studies that show that the use of cellphones (hand-held AND hands-free) is as detrimental to good driving as driving drunk, but many people are not. It's not just texting that's a problem --- even conversations on a hands-free device are distracting. I avoid driving when the bars close because I try to limit my encounters with drunk drivers, but I cannot do the same with cellphone using drivers. They are everywhere.
Even though this ban might be difficult to enforce, the same was probably true of the seat belt law when it was new. I know people who now wear their seat belts specifically because of the existence of the law. Please do the same for cell phone use, and make the roads safer for all of us.
For those who support the ordinance, one clause will probably rankle them. It won't be considered a primary offense, in that drivers won't be pulled over just for talking on their phones -- it could be added on if the driver is stopped for another offense.