Put Down that Mobile Phone

There is a ban on hand-held mobile phone use by drivers in North Carolina. And there’s a good chance you’ve never heard of it.

That’s because the ban only applies to drivers of commercial motor vehicles—not drivers of private passenger vehicles.

The federal government banned the use of hand-held mobile phones by the drivers of commercial motor vehicles in 2011. The next year, the North Carolina legislature codified the ban in G.S. 20-137.4A(a1). And while the federal rule applies only to commercial motor vehicles operated in interstate commerce, North Carolina’s administrative rules extend the prohibition to for-hire motor carriers, for-hire motor carrier vehicles, private motor carriers and private motor carrier vehicles operated entirely within North Carolina if the vehicle is: 

(1) a vehicle having a gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR), gross combination weight rating (GCWR), gross vehicle weight (GVW), gross combination weight (GCW) of 26,001 pounds or more, whichever is greater;

(2) designed or used to transport 16 or more passengers, including the driver; or

(3) used in transporting a hazardous material in a quantity requiring placarding pursuant to 49 C.F.R. Parts 170 through 185.

14B N.C.A.C. 07C .0101. Neither the federal nor the North Carolina rules barring hand-held mobile phone use apply to commercial motor vehicles operated by federal, state or local governments.

What exactly are drivers of CMVs prohibited from doing? Drivers of qualifying commercial motor vehicles may not “use a hand-held mobile telephone while driving.” 49 C.F.R. § 392.82. Driving is defined broadly as operating a commercial motor vehicle on a highway, including while temporarily stationary because of traffic, a traffic control device, or other momentary delays.” Driving does not include “operating a commercial motor vehicle when the driver has moved the vehicle to the side of, or off, a highway and has halted in a location where the vehicle can safely remain stationary.” An exception applies to allow the driver of a commercial motor vehicle to use a hand-held mobile telephone “when necessary to communicate with law enforcement officials or other emergency services.”

An earlier-enacted ban prohibits such drivers from texting while driving. 49 C.F.R. § 392.80.

A fact sheet from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) says it is easy to comply with the rules. It summarizes the rules as: No REACHING, No HOLDING, No DIALING, No TEXTING, No READING.

What about other drivers? All drivers in North Carolina are prohibited from driving on a street or public vehicular area while using a mobile telephone to: (1) manually enter multiple letters or text as a means of communicating with another person; or (2) read any electronic mail or text message transmitted to or stored within the device. G.S. 20-137.4A(a). This prohibition does not apply to the operator of a vehicle that is “lawfully parked or stopped.” Thus, it presumably is permissible to text and read emails and texts while temporarily stopped at a traffic light.

Drivers of private passenger vehicles who are 18 or older may lawfully hold mobile phones in their hands, dial numbers, and talk while driving in North Carolina.

Drivers who are under 18 are prohibited from operating a motor vehicle on a street or public vehicular area in North Carolina while using a mobile phone while the vehicle is in motion. G.S. 20-137.3(d). Exceptions apply to allow minors to use a mobile phone to communicate with a parent, legal guardian, spouse, or emergency personnel. 

Reason for the federal ban. The federal rule was adopted as part of the U.S. Transportation Department’s effort to end distracted driving. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) said its research showed that using a hand-held cell phone while driving required riskier steps than hand-free mobile phone use such as searching and reaching for the phone. According to the FMCSA, commercial drivers reaching for an object such as a cell phone are three times more likely to be involved in a crash or “other safety critical event.” Dialing a hand-held phone made it six times more likely that a commercial driver would be involved in such an event.

Could the hand-held ban be extended? A few years ago, the National Transportation Safety Board called for a complete ban on the use of cell phones while driving, citing an “epidemic” of distracted driving. Given the ubiquitous use of mobile phones by drivers, I’m doubtful that state legislators, who have the authority to order such a ban, have an appetite for such a sweeping prohibition. The ready availability of so much hands-free technology might, however, render broader application of the hands-free requirement more appealing.

North Carolina cities may not enact their own rules. The Town of Chapel Hill enacted an ordinance in 2012 prohibiting drivers from using a mobile telephone while operating a motor vehicle in motion on a street or public vehicular area within the town. The operator of a local towing company challenged the lawfulness of the ordinance on the basis that state law preempts municipal restrictions on mobile phone use while driving. The North Carolina Supreme Court agreed. In King v. Town of Chapel Hill, 367 N.C. 400 (2014), the court determined that the General Assembly’s enactment of various statutory provisions to reduce the dangers associated with mobile phone use while driving indicated its “’intent to provide a complete and integrated regulatory scheme to the exclusion of local regulation.’” Id. at 412 (citing G.S. 160A-174(b)(5)).

Have your say. Has North Carolina gone far enough in regulating mobile phone use by drivers? Or would you like to see all drivers put down their phones?

Should North Carolina Ban All Drivers from Using Hand-Held Mobile Phones?

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