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Chapel Hill's cell phone debate gets put on hold

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Chapel Hill’s cell-phone debate got put on hold Monday night when a proposed ban on calls while driving fell two votes short.

To pass on a first reading, the ban needed six votes. The council deadlocked 4-4, with member Ed Harrison absent because he was representing the town at a regional transit meeting. The issue will come back for a second reading March 26, when it will only need five votes.

The town has discussed the issue for two years. Another yes vote for a full ban next time could make Chapel Hill the first in the nation to enact such a ban, according to the town attorney. Evanston, Ill., which has had a local ban on hand-held calls, is considering adding hands-free calls to its ban.

The town’s proposal calls for banning either hands-held cell phone calls or all cell-phone calls while driving in town limits. It would make such calls a secondary offense, punishable by a $25 fine, when police stop someone for another violation such as speeding. It would make exceptions for emergencies and calls with family members consistent with the state’s cell phone ban for drivers under 18.  

Monday’s opponents cited a state assistant attorney general’s opinion that Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt, who voted against the measure, called “reasonable” and rationally laid out.”

When asked last year whether the town had the statutory authority to regulate cell phone use while driving in town limits, Assistant Attorney General Jess Mekeel was succinct. “No,” he wrote.

Town Attorney Ralph Karpinos said a court would have to decide the town's ability to enforce a ban.

Town Council member Penny Rich said Evanston’s experience shows the ban is a good idea. The home of Northwestern University has a population of 77,000 residents compared to Chapel Hill’s 58,000, she said. In the two years since it enacted the hands-held ban, accidents have decreased 17.6 percent, she said. Evanston fines people $50 per offense, and up to $200 if a person using a cell phone gets into an accident.

According to the city of Evanston, since the hands-held ban began in March 201, there have been 2,979 violations and total fines of $149,805. Of that, $124,685, or 83 percent, has been collected.

“People are not fighting the tickets,” Rich said. “People know when they’re coming from Chicago to hang up the phone.”

But other council members were not convinced.

Matt Czajkowski wanted to know how much signs explaining the local ban would cost and how much money the town was willing to spend to defend its legality.
“At the end of the day we’re about to pass an ordinance the attorney general has told us we don’t have the authority to enforce,” he said. “The last thing we want is to have this challenged and lose.” 

For: Bell, Rich, Storrow and Ward

Against: Czajkowski, Easthom, Pease and Kleinschmidt,

Find a fuller version of this story at www.chapelhillnews.com (or just click here), and tell us whether you support or oppose the proposed ban at editor@nando.com 

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About the blogger

Mark Schultz is the editor of The Chapel Hill News and The Durham News.