Put Down that Mobile Phone

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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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3 comments on “Put Down that Mobile Phone

  1. As a 59 yr old female with over 40 yrs of driving experience, and becoming a Motorcycle Enthusiast after 50, I feel I am a safe, conscientious driver. I believe no matter
    How long one has been Driving, there is absolutely NO Room for complacency. If you have ever gone through the Motorcycle trading course and then ridden often for just one year, you will realize just how crucial it is that your entire Focus is on your Driving…nothing else! Even when driving a car, your attention needs to be on your driving and most important of all, the “Other Guy”. It’s the Other Guy’s mistake, that you may have to suddenly react to in order to escape a Loud, Metal crushing, Glass breaking impact that will change your Life forever… that is.. If you still have one. So,… when your Best friend calls you on your Cellphone while you are driving, either pull over to a safe place to talk,… Or I’m sure she will understand when you say “I can’t talk right now, but I’ll sure call ya back later”. YOUR LIFE and the Lives of any Passengers with you, are FAR MORE important than a postponable chat with someone on a distracting Cellphone while driving thousands of pounds of metal, 70mph on the Highway. Some of you may want to reconsider your Vote. I know I don’t want Distracted People driving at High Speeds near me on the Highways.

  2. Apparently, Illinois has had a total ban on hands-on cellphone use for a couple of years. It would be interesting to know what the experience there has been.

    (I learned this from an opinion Judge Posner issued yesterday in which he concluded that, unlike Illinois, Indiana, while “right to be worried about the dangers created by persons who fiddle with their cellphones while driving, [is] probably wrong to outlaw such fiddling only with respect to texting—if only because the effect of slicing up drivers’ use of cellphones in this way has been to make the Indiana statute largely inefficacious, such is the difficulty of distinguishing texting from other uses of cellphones by drivers by glancing into the driver’s side of a moving automobile.”

    The Indiana law seems similar to North Carolina’s, so this Fourth Amendment case may be of interest to you.)

    http://media.ca7.uscourts.gov/cgi-bin/rssExec.pl?Submit=Display&Path=Y2016/D02-18/C:15-2540:J:Posner:aut:T:fnOp:N:1706108:S:0&mc_cid=f509be176a&mc_eid=92cf9e4be9

  3. […] [Editor’s note: This post originally appeared here, on the School of Government’s local government blog. For an update on local government authority to regulate cell phone use by drivers, see this post.] […]

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