By EMERY P. DALESIO
The Associated Press
RALEIGH, N.C. — As a real estate broker and building contractor, Harry McLean is on his cellphone constantly as work shuttles him around his hometown of Chapel Hill.
But he supports the town, maybe best known for its powerhouse basketball teams, becoming the nation's first to ban any cellphone use by drivers, including hands-free sets.
After two-years of debate, Chapel Hill's town council this week narrowly approved outlawing anyone talking on a phone while driving within the town of 57,000 people. Cellphone use would be a secondary offense, meaning an officer must first stop a vehicle for another reason before issuing a citation for violating the ban. Violators would be fined $25.
Nine states, big cities like Washington D.C. and Chicago, and dozens of smaller municipalities around the country have made it illegal for drivers to steer with one hand and yak with the other. Texting while driving is outlawed in three dozen states, 32 ban young motorists from mobile-phone conversations, and 19 prohibit school bus drivers from using cellphones.
But Chapel Hill is the first U.S. community to ban everyone from using a mobile phone even in hands-free mode, according to the National Transportation Safety Board and the industry group Cellular Telephone Industry Association. Evanston, Ill., home of Northwestern University, is weighing whether to do the same.
McLean is ready to change how he does his job since he blames a distracted driver for a crash that nearly killed him. During a business trip to Maine 12 years ago, a driver crossed a road's center line and hit him head-on at about 55 mph. She died. He needed 29 surgeries.
"She was distracted by something," said McLean, 66, who supports the local ban and tries to avoid using the phone while he's driving. "I know it's unsafe. I've even caught myself at times being deeply involved in a conversation and while I'm watching what's on the road, I may miss an exit because I'm partially distracted."
Small-business owner Helen Antipov agrees that focusing on the road is every driver's duty, but she's on the side of residents who think the ban is a bad idea.
"My car is my office," said Antipov, whose Chapel Hill business deploys 25 caregivers to the elderly and others who need in-home attention. "Elderly people, at home by themselves, you can't wait a couple of hours to return a call. It could be terrible if we don't call back or we don't get the call right away."
Chapel Hill's move comes after a decade of explosive growth has made mobile devices virtually omnipresent in American life. There were 191 million drivers and 118 million wireless subscribers in 2001, National Transportation Safety Board said. Ten years later there were 323 million wireless subscribers and 210 million drivers.
The federal safety agency in December urged every state to outlaw non-emergency phone calls and texting by operators of every vehicle on the road. The NTSB blames distracted driving from cellphone use and other reasons for about 3,100 highway deaths last year.
"We understand that a ban on personal electronic devices is the kind of thing that represents a significant change in our culture. And that's the reason that we identify and applaud Chapel Hill, as they're the first one literally in the nation, to take this on," NTSB member Mark Rosekind said.
"Safety changes take time. The really tragic part is that over that time people die and people get injured," he said.
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Take seatbelts, Rosekind said. Two decades ago, half of North Carolina motorists were wearing them, he said, while a 2010 NTSB survey found about 90 percent use them now.
The mobile phone industry isn't fighting laws restricting calling on the go, though it would be best if state legislatures acted rather than have a patchwork of local laws, said John Walls of the Cellular Telephone Industry Association.
"Regulations can be confusing to drivers — where the city limits stop and start," Walls said.
Whether the Chapel Hill law can be enforced is in question. The state attorney general's office said that the town lacks authority because the state legislature has started regulating mobile phone use. It's illegal for all drivers in North Carolina to send text or read messages, and for drivers under 18 to use a cellphone.
It's likely the Chapel Hill ordinance will have little lasting impact, said Jonathan Adkins, a spokesman for the Governors Highway Safety Association in Washington.
"It's very difficult for a small jurisdiction to have an effective ban. It's expensive. You have to put up signage, to enforce it you have to educate the public that you have a law," he said.
What the town's step may do is add momentum for state legislators to consider following their lead, Adkins said. That happened in Pennsylvania, where a statewide texting ban took effect this month nearly three years after Philadelphia banned hand-held devices, Adkins said.
"We may be looked at by the Legislature as simply not important enough to deal with," said Joe Capowski, who pushed for the local no-cellphones law since 2010. That's when he witnessed a driver run down university student Krista Slough as she walked to class. Capowski, a former Chapel Hill council member, and Slough believe the driver was distracted by a mobile device, leaving Slough with brain hemorrhages.
Capowski believes Chapel Hill's no-cellphone ordinance is most likely to be followed by other college towns like Evanston.
"I believe that nationally it's going to be the college towns like Gainesville (Fla.) and Davis Calif., where the towns will do what the state would not," he said.
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