Julia Bernstein: Cellphone hazards a risk we can avoid

November 26, 2013 

We all have the right to enjoy a safe community. Many have chosen Chapel Hill to be that safe place in which to live, learn or work.

The maintenance of our safe community requires a commitment from all of us. Presently, our community’s leaders – Chapel Hill town officials and the Supreme Court of North Carolina – have some important work to do to show their commitment to one aspect of our collective safety: our town roads.

On Nov. 8, the Supreme Court announced it would review the case involving Chapel Hill’s towing and mobile phone ordinances. Thus, the saga of the mobile phone ordinance, which dates back to late 2011, continues.

The mobile phone ordinance would ban talking on cellphones – both handheld and hands-free – while driving within town limits. Unfortunately, instead of making our roads safer, the ordinance has spent the last 20 months unenforceable, going from Town Council passage through two rounds of court review. In this time, the dangers of talking on a cellphone while driving have not subsided, nor will they subside as the ordinance lies in wait for attention from the Supreme Court.

The data are clear that talking on a cellphone – either handheld or hands-free – while driving is dangerous. The cognitive demands of carrying on a cellphone conversation drain your brain’s ability to focus on driving.

Research indicates the driving impairment from cellphone use can be akin to driving while under the influence of alcohol, a behavior our society unequivocally views as hazardous and justifiably illegal. Drivers talking on the phone are four times more likely to be in a traffic crash than those not on the phone; the National Safety Council estimates that distracted drivers talking on their phones are involved in 21 percent of all traffic crashes in the U.S. By this logic, eliminating cellphone conversations while driving could have prevented approximately 219 crashes and 87 injuries within Chapel Hill town limits in 2012.

In addition to the detrimental personal consequences for individuals involved in such crashes, the economic impacts are staggering. According to the N.C. Department of Transportation, the average cost of a crash in Orange County is $34,954. That means those 219 preventable crashes cost an estimated $7.6 million in medical costs, public services, loss of productivity, employer costs, property damage and change in quality of life. Those costs hurt us all.

It is now up to the town, George’s Towing and Recovery (the plaintiff in the court case) and the Supreme Court to push for quick resolution to this long-outstanding ordinance. Town attorneys Ralph Karpinos and Matthew Sullivan should work to file the town’s brief rapidly so the Supreme Court can schedule the case for review. The Supreme Court should review the case efficiently, yet judiciously, and come to a decision as soon as possible. The town council, manager, mayor, and police should all prepare to act on the Supreme Court’s decision, either by beginning enforcement and education, or by constructing a modified mobile phone ordinance that will meet the standards the Supreme Court establishes.

It is unacceptable for Chapel Hill’s drivers, pedestrians and bicyclists to continue to be exposed every day to a danger that we can prevent.

Julia Bernstein is a master of public health candidate in the Gillings School of Global Public Health at UNC.

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