Chapel Hill’s ban on cell phone use while driving gets disconnected

On June 12, 2014, the Supreme Court of North Carolina struck down the state’s first local ordinance banning the use of cellphones while driving.

Photo by: James Clayton

In March 2012, the Chapel Hill Town Council passed a local ordinance prohibiting anyone eighteen years of age and older from using a mobile phone “while operating a motor vehicle in motion on a public street or highway or public vehicular area.” Already in existence at that time, N.C.G.S. § 20-137.3 prohibited drivers under eighteen from using their cell phones and N.C.G.S. § 20-137.4A established an all-driver texting ban.

Towing company owner George King sued the town of Chapel Hill to enjoin enforcement of the ordinance because it allegedly posed a substantial encumbrance of the his economic activity.  King’s lawsuit also challenged a town towing ordinance requiring tow truck operators to inform police of the tow within fifteen minutes, a requirement made more difficult by the phone ban.  The real issue, however, was the town council’s legislation of policing power in an area traditionally left to the state.

North Carolina state law preempts Chapel Hill’s ordinance regarding the regulation of a driver’s use of a mobile phone.

Although municipalities have general police power to regulate or prohibit acts detrimental to the health, safety, or welfare of its citizens, the scope of that power is limited.  In order to avoid dual regulation, state law and federal law limit the scope of a municipality’s authority.  The Supreme Court of North Carolina held in a recent decision that Chapel Hill overstepped the scope of its authority because state law preempts municipalities from regulating a driver’s mobile phone use.

North Carolina state law preempts Chapel Hill’s ordinance regarding the regulation of a driver’s use of a mobile phone.  The state—not local municipalities—regulates highways and roads.  The North Carolina General Assembly intended to “provide a complete and integrated regulatory scheme to the exclusion of local regulation.”  The legislature has consistently given broad regulatory power to the state to regulate transportation and travel on the highways.  Additionally, the broad title of the state texting ban, “Unlawful use of a mobile phone,” supports the notion that the legislature intended to expand state regulation while precluding municipalities at the same time.

“There is nothing in government more dangerous to the liberty and rights of the individual than a too ready resort to the police power.”

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) National Center for Statistics and Analysis estimated that in a typical daylight moment in 2011, five percent of drivers held cell phones to their ears while driving and about nine percent of vehicles had drivers using a phone in another manner.  The NHTSA also found that more than 3,300 people were killed and about 421,000 more were injured in crashes involving distracted drivers.

The Town of Chapel Hill recognized the dangers that texting and driving pose to its citizens.  However, the ordinance itself posed a different kind of threat to its citizens.  As the N.C. Supreme Court stated “[t]here is nothing in government more dangerous to the liberty and rights of the individual than a too ready resort to the police power.”

Laura Tonch, Former Senior Staff Writer/Ethics
About Laura Tonch, Former Senior Staff Writer/Ethics (18 Articles)
Laura Tonch served as the Ethics Staff Writer for the Campbell Law Observer. She is a graduate of the University of Michigan where she earned a degree in General Business with a concentration in Pre-Law and a minor in Psychology. After her first year of law school, Laura studied abroad in Vienna, Austria to study Comparative Civil Liberties through Wake Forest University School of Law. She interned for the NC Department of Justice, Transportation Section during the summer of 2014. Laura graduated from Campbell Law School in May 2015.
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