By Susan Dickson
CHAPEL HILL â€“ The Chapel Hill Town Council deadlocked 4-4 on Monday on a proposal to ban cell phone use while driving, and the ordinance will come back before the council on March 26.
Council member Ed Harrison was absent because he was representing the council at a Triangle Transit meeting. Because Monday night was the councilâ€™s first reading of the ordinance, it would have required six yes votes for approval; on second reading, it will require only five.
Council members Donna Bell, Penny Rich, Lee Storrow and Jim Ward voted for the ordinance, while Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt and council members Matt Czajkowski, Laurin Easthom and Gene Pease voted against it.
The ordinance, which was drafted by Town Attorney Ralph Karpinos, would prohibit the use of cell phones or any additional technology, like cameras or music players, while operating a car. The ordinance proposes a $25 fine for violation. Council members could approve a ban for both hand-held and hands-free devices, or simply for hand-held devices. The vote on Monday considered a ban on both, and Karpinos said he believed such a ban would be the first of its type in the country.
Under the ordinance as drafted, a driver could not be cited for violating the ordinance unless an officer had cause to stop the driver for a violation of another law. The ordinance would not apply to drivers using a phone to communicate with emergency officials in an emergency situation or to drivers communicating with their parents, children, legal guardians or spouses.
Karpinos said he included the exceptions in the proposed ordinance because he felt they would give it a better chance of being upheld if challenged on the basis of preemption by state law. However, an assistant state attorney general told the town in an opinion letter that he didnâ€™t believe the town had the authority to enact such an ordinance.
Rich, who initially proposed that the council consider such a ban, said a ban on the use of hand-held phones while driving had been successful since itâ€™s implementation two years ago in Evanston, Ill.
â€œThey consider it to be a success,â€ she said, citing a drop in the rate of car accidents in Evanston.
Ward said he strongly supported the ban, noting the importance of coupling an educational campaign with the ordinance, â€œso that everybodyâ€™s well-informed, understands where weâ€™re coming from and will be law-abiding so that we have safer roads.â€
Czajkowski questioned the townâ€™s authority in regulating cell phone use by drivers, as well as the townâ€™s ability to enforce such an ordinance.
â€œI just donâ€™t think you pass laws that you donâ€™t have the authority to pass, and with enforcement that is feeble and nonexistent, for educational purposes,â€ he said.
Kleinschmidt said he too has concerns with preemption.
â€œIâ€™m not the kind of person who refrains from pushing the envelope, but to walk out on that ledge when we have an opinion that says â€˜no authority,â€™ and one that I think is well-reasoned, thatâ€™s why itâ€™s going to fail to get my support,â€ he said.
In December, the National Transportation Safety Board called for the first-ever nationwide ban on driver use of portable electronic devices. Texting while driving and the use of cell phones by drivers under 18 are both already illegal in North Carolina.