If you’re a cyclist, the cell phone driver is your worst nightmare (right up there with the “get offa mah road!” belligerent driver). Someone who is talking on their phone while driving is not paying full attention to what’s going on in the street, something that can be especially dangerous when trying to pass a cyclists or traveling through a high-pedestrian area. It leads to accidents and injuries, neither of which are intentional but could be avoided if the phone was off.
Hence, the consensus opinion of cyclists (and transportation safety experts) is that talking on a cell phone is an idiotic and dangerous thing to do. It greatly decreases one’s focus on the road and increases the likelihood of being involved in an accident. The National Transportation Safety Board has called for an outright ban on personal electronic devices, which covers cell phones, iPads, Kindles, and anything else with an on/off switch.
Last month, the Chapel Hill Town Council decided that something had to be done and banned the use of cell phones while operating a moving vehicle. This ban (available with additional documents here) takes effect on June 1, making Chapel Hill the first municipality in the country to ban ALL cell phone use, including hands-free use, while driving.
If you’re a cyclist and you’re pumping your fist in the air right now in a fit of unmitigated joy, you might want to sit down and take a closer look at the ordinance. While talking on your cell phone while driving is, as I said, an idiotic and dangerous thing to do, this action by the Town of Chapel Hill does not solve the problem in any way, shape, or form.
For one thing, the ordinance itself is illegal. Under North Carolina law, a town or municipality may not regulate an area of commerce that the state is already regulating. In this instance, the state has already banned texting/checking email while driving, and several state legislators have advocated for banning the use of cell phones while driving.
The ordinance is also ineffective in terms of enforcement. The town made talking on the phone while driving a secondary violation, meaning that a driver can’t be pulled over for talking on their cell phone. Additionally, proving that someone was talking on the phone might require a search of the device, which raises privacy concerns. And, if you do get a ticket for talking on your phone, you pay a total of twenty-five dollars. Finally, the ordinace exempts emergency calls as well as (wait for it) calls to direct family members.
In short, the Chapel Hill ordinance has so many holes and weaknesses that you can ride a fixed-gear cruiser right through it. I appreciate the town for attempting to address a serious problem our society has with distracted driving, but the significant controversy that this ordinance has created isn’t necessarily good for the cause of traffic safety. What is needed is strong education on safe driving, not ineffectual local legislation with flimsy enforcement ability.
– Harry Johnson Jr.