North Carolina town plans to ticket drivers for any cellphone use

Ban pits safety advocates against business owners


If you’re driving through Chapel Hill, N.C., and your cellphone rings, don’t answer it. Starting June 1, you can get a $25 dollar ticket for talking on your cellphone while driving within the city limits.

In a close 5-4 vote, the town council decided to ban any phone calls made while operating a vehicle – that includes hands-free devices, such as Bluetooth and speakerphones.

Chapel Hill, home to the University of North Carolina, is the first municipality in the nation to enact a complete ban on all cellphone use in cars. Town council member Penny Rich says a large number of pedestrians and bicyclists navigating sidewalks and streets among drivers who tend to multitask is a dangerous mix.

“The distraction is not holding the phone. The distraction is actually the conversation,” Rich said. “So just holding the phone is not what is making you drive poorly, it’s the conversation.”

The ban is a second-offense violation. So the Chapel Hill police will not pull you over if they see you talking on a phone. A ticket will only be issued if they stop you for another traffic violation, such as speeding or running a red light, and find that you were talking on your phone.

The National Transportation Safety Board supports the ban and is trying to promote statewide cellphone bans in all 50 states.

“If you need to make that call at 5 o’clock and you are on the road, just find a parking lot or somewhere to go to make that call,” Rich said. “You make that call, and you get back on the road and continue driving.”

But some businesspeople in the area are upset about the ban and say not being able to use their phones while driving in Chapel Hill can cost them customers and hurt their business.  

“Basically my car is my office,” said Dave Cotton, owner of AdvantaClean, a disaster restoration and cleaning business. “If a customer or potential customer calls me and I don’t answer that phone, well, they are going to call someone else.”

Frank Coker owns Senior Helpers, a company that helps homebound senior citizens with daily tasks, such as grocery shopping, getting to doctor’s appointments and household chores. Coker worries that a missed phone call might be from a client that needs immediate response.

“I need to pick those up. I am not comfortable waiting four minutes to pull off and call them,” Coker said. “That could be a very long time for someone who is in a distressing situation.”

But Rich, who runs her own business as a personal chef, argues that pulling over to pick up a phone call will not hurt business. She says her clients are very understanding about her policy to not answer phone calls while driving her company van.

“Actually, my clients applauded me for bringing this to the Chapel Hill town council for an ordinance to be put in place,” Rich said. “This is not really an ordinance to write tickets for people. It’s an education campaign that we are putting forth.”

There are legal questions about the ban that could open it up to challenges from ticketed drivers. In a response to a letter from the Chapel Hill town attorney asking about the proposed ban, a North Carolina assistant attorney general explained that the ordinance was pre-empted by state laws on cellphone usage and might be deemed unenforceable.

“It’s impossible to call this issue,” said Shea Denning, associate professor of public law and government at UNC-Chapel Hill. “There are really strong legal arguments pointing both ways in favor or pre-emption and in favor of the town’s authority to have acted.”

Denning also says that elected officials have to also consider the delicate balance between regulatory authority and people’s individual freedoms.

“The town council decided in this instance that the balance fell on the public safety side,” Denning said. “It appears that they considered a really deep record of information before acting, but it did take a long time for them to come to this point.”

Evanston, Ill., could become the second city to enact a similar ban. That city now requires cellphone calls within city limits to be hands free, but it is exploring an ordinance to ban all cellphone use as well.