Local News

Appeals court reinstates Chapel Hill ban on cellphones while driving

Posted June 4, 2013 11:37 a.m. EDT
Updated June 4, 2013 7:09 p.m. EDT

— The state Court of Appeals on Tuesday reversed a lower court ruling that struck down Chapel Hill ordinances banning the use of cellphones while driving and regulating towing companies.

The town adopted the cellphone ban in March 2012, but the ordinance never took effect because towing company operator George King challenged them.

King also sued over towing regulations that Chapel Hill passed in February 2012 to cut down on complaints about predatory towing. Those rules require tow zones to be properly marked, set fees towing companies can charge, require them to accept credit or debit card payment, mandate that they inform police before towing any vehicle and prohibit impound lots from being located more than 15 miles from town.

King argued that the combination of the two ordinances would harm his business, saying that his drivers would be cited for using a cellphone in responding to calls from people seeking to recover their towed cars.

Superior Court Judge Orlando Hudson threw out both ordinances last year, backing the sentiment of King's attorney that Chapel Hill couldn't arbitrarily regulate the towing industry.

In a unanimous ruling, the court said Hudson was wrong in that King hadn't shown any harm from either ordinance.

"The plaintiffs, they hadn't received a citation, and so, there was no case for them to rule on," Chapel Hill Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt said. "It tells me that there may be a day in the future in which our cellphone ban may be tested again in the courts."

Kleinschmidt said the town would begin enforcing the cellphone ban on June 24. Because it is considered a secondary offense, drivers will be cited only if they're pulled over for another traffic violation.

Local drivers remain split over the ordinance.

"No one should be driving and talking. When you're driving, you need to be driving and paying attention," Matilda Bailey said. "It's really unsafe to be using your phone in any manner."

"I think it's pretty much a joke. Why would they do it in Chapel Hill if they wouldn't do it statewide?" Chris Warren said.

North Carolina bans the use of cellphones by drivers age 18 and younger and by school bus drivers.

Kleinschmidt said he feels Chapel Hill's ban is "somewhat overbroad," but he said he's pleased the courts recognize that municipalities have the right to regulate matters of public safety.

"The General Assembly doesn't have to explicitly give us those powers in order to protect for our citizens' and our visitors' health and safety," he said.

King's lawyer said they plan to ask the state Supreme Court to review the decision.