The city of Chapel Hill, North Carolina has become the first city in the United States to ban all cell phone use while driving, according to a News Observer report. While several other cities and states have banned texting and handset calling while in a moving vehicle, Chapel Hill becomes the first to include hands-free devices in the usage ban, likely inspired by research that has suggested using a hands-free device does not reduce the likelihood of accidents.
Chapel Hill’s city council passed the legislation by a divided 5-4 vote, though it is unclear whether the law will actually be enforceable. An inquiry to the state attorney general’s office found that the city did not have the authority to mandate cell phone use. Critics have also argued that a city-wide ban could be superseded by state law, and thus unenforceable by city police. This argument seems to have some merit to it, as state of Pennsylvania courts have struck down similar city-wide efforts in cities there.
Even if the measure is allowed to proceed, the ban is a “secondary violation,” which means that police officers cannot directly stop a vehicle for violating the law, but could only charge motorists they pulled over for something else. Further, the law allows for emergency calls to authorities, spouses, partners, or children, and officers would need to check the cell phone to ensure the call did not fall under one of these categories. This type of search could be viewed as a violation of privacy, especially amidst the growing number of mobile privacy violation cases out there.
The fact that Chapel Hill has passed a ban on all cellular usage could signal a growing sentiment against cell phone usage while driving, and we could start to see these issues discussed at state and even federal levels. While most would admit to the dangers of texting and handset calls while driving, the more contentious issue will likely be hands-free calls, which have been widely touted as the safe alternative to handset calling. Rightly or wrongly, most consumers feel hands-free calling is okay, and even the ideal solution for mobile productivity in the car despite a growing amount of research that suggests otherwise.
One thing is for sure; in an age where our smartphones are quickly replacing several of the tasks we used to use computers to achieve, the debate over usage of these mobile devices in vehicles is only going to escalate.