Cells, driving don’t mix

Due to an editing error, a previous version of this story stated that Town council member Penny Rich said she wasn’t sure if students would stop using cell phones in cars under threat of fines, but in fact UNC student Anna Wong said that.

At the public hearing, the council discussed the proposed ban, which would make using a cellphone while driving a secondary offense — meaning a driver would have to be pulled over for a traffic violation before being fined for cellphone use.

The council discussed increasing the proposed fine for cellphone usage from $25 to $100 and applying the proposed ordinance to only handheld devices.

But some council members questioned if Chapel Hill would have the authority to implement the ban — which was first proposed in January 2010 — on state-owned roads.

“I still believe it’s a state issue,” said Councilman Gene Pease.

Town Attorney Ralph Karpinos contacted the attorney general’s office in November about whether Chapel Hill has the authority to enact the regulation.

In his reply, Assistant Attorney General Jess Mekeel said state law preempts the measure, so in his opinion the town could not enforce the measure.

According to state law, it is illegal for drivers under 18 to use technology while driving and school bus drivers to use cellphones while driving children.

Town Councilwoman Penny Rich said the council has been waiting for a reaction from the N.C. General Assembly about a statewide cellphone ban.

Town spokeswoman Catherine Lazorko said if Chapel Hill takes action, it would be the only town in the state to enact a ban that goes beyond state law.

But Town Councilman Matt Czajkowski said if Chapel Hill leads with this ban and the state concludes they don’t have authority, they would have done more harm than good.

The council proposed the ordinance to combat growing concerns associated with driving while using a cellphone.

Arthur Goodwin, senior research associate with UNC Highway Safety Research Center, said when drivers use cellphones, they are four times more likely to be involved in a crash.

Goodwin said accidents involving distracted driving are more common in younger drivers because they are the strongest users of technology.

Even if the town can implement it, some UNC students doubt the effectiveness of the proposed ban.

“I think cellphone use is a problem, but I don’t think a ban will help,” said freshman Felicia Zbarcea.

In a 7-2 vote, the council decided to continue the discussion March 12.

Contact the City Editor at city@dailytarheel.com.

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