Chapel Hill mulls banning using cellphones while driving

To Joe Capowski, part of the problem is cultural.

Capowski, a former member of the Chapel Hill Town Council, is petitioning the current council to ban drivers from using cellphones while driving on town streets.

“It’s a very dangerous way to drive,” he said. “A person who is driving while talking on a cellphone causes the same risk as someone who is driving drunk.”

Capowski said cellphone use on the road is a particular problem in Chapel Hill because the town is home to so many college students who have never really known what it’s like not to have a cellphone.

“I’m not against cellphones — I understand their value,” he said. “I just don’t use it when I drive.”

Council member Penny Rich, who proposed a similar petition last year, said she is glad to see the issue come back into the public eye, but there are still many topics to be discussed.

For example, the N.C. General Assembly sent House bill 31, which would make it illegal to use mobile phones while driving, to the rules committee of the House of Representatives, but council members do not know if the legislature will take action on the bill.

Drivers across the state are already banned from texting while driving, and drivers under 18 are not permitted to use their phones at all while behind the wheel.

“It’s good that the bill is still alive, and I don’t think it’s as partisan as I originally thought,” Rich said. “But it’s a bit of a waiting game. Do we wait for the General Assembly, or do we start talking about it in September or October again?”

In addition to waiting for action from the legislature, the council must also consider how such a ban would be enforced if it were to go into effect.

The council has asked the Chapel Hill Police Department to prepare a report on possible enforcement options for a cellphone ban, but Rich said Capowski’s petition will most likely not receive a response for at least a few months.

“Some of the streets we own, and some of the streets the state owns, so that’s a difficulty,” Rich said.

Arthur Goodwin, a senior research associate at the UNC Highway Safety Research Center, said the best studies suggest that talking on the phone while driving makes drivers four times more likely to be in an accident.

“Driving while on the phone is a bit like playing Russian roulette,” he said. “You’re increasing your risk, and it’s just a matter of time before it catches up with you.”

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