Talking on your Cell Phone while driving forbidden in Chapel Hill

Those of you who frequently talk on your cell phone while driving take note – this practice will become illegal in Chapel Hill on June 1. Yesterday, Chapel Hill, North Carolina became the first town in the nation to outlaw talking on a cell phone, whether hands free or not, while driving.

Of course, this may not be the last word on the issue.  State Attorney General Jess Mekeel has said that “the town may not regulate activity in a field where the state intends to provide ‘a complete and integrated regulatory scheme.’ ” The state currently bans the use of cell phones by drivers under the age of 18, school bus drivers, and anyone reading email or texting while driving.

According to Mekeel, “An ordinance by the Town of Chapel Hill regulating motorists’ use of cell phones is preempted by State law, and therefore, unenforceable.”

However, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) supports the ordinance in Chapel Hill, and there is currently a ban on hand-held cell phones in Evanston, Illinois, home of Northwestern University.  Since enacting the ordinance two years ago, accidents there have decreased 17.6%, according to Chapel Hill Town Council member Penny Rich.

I am of the opinion that is a prudent and smart move by the town. People will have to get used to the change, but the ban itself is likely to decrease the number of accidents and hopefully save lives. I believe it is just a matter of time before this becomes the norm across the state. I previously wrote about my opinions on this here.

How Texting While Driving may impact Worker’s Comp

Worker’s Comp Insurers and Employers are beginning to take notice of a disturbing trend in society today… more and more work-related fatalities that are caused by, you guessed it, texting while driving.  A recent article by Ira Leesfield cites a statistic from the National Safety Council that an estimated 200,000 traffic accidents per year are caused by drivers who have been texting.  Also cited in the article was a study by Car & Driver Magazine which “found that texting and driving was more hazardous than drinking and driving, with texting drivers three to four times slower in their response rates than drunk drivers.”

How does this impact Worker’s Compensation Insurance?  Many employers provide their employees with mobile devices, and require continued contact with them through email or texting – even while those employees are on the roads.  The problem with this, and the reason that employers and the insurance companies are taking notice, is that when an employee is involved in a traffic accident while texting, not only could the insurance company/employer be on the hook for paying the workers compensation claim, but they could also be responsible for paying the claim to the victim of the accident under a theory of respondeat superior or direct negligence.  And because more and more accidents are caused by texting while driving, that means that the insurance companies are going to have to pay out more and more money for these workers compensation and other claims.

A prudent employer would be smart to adopt written policies banning texting while driving for all employees, and make sure that these policies are frequently and adequately communicated to employees.  The problem arises when an employee is sent out for an isolated errand – but they don’t normally drive for that employer.  If the errand was for company business, than the employer could be liable under the Worker’s Comp statute.  (I’ve frequently thought about what might happen if my legal assistant was injured in an accident while driving to the courthouse for a last minute filing or to pick up office supplies.)

Since North Carolina has a “no-fault” workers comp system, an accident caused by an employee who was texting while driving would still generally be compensable – even though it may have been the employee’s fault.  Ultimately, the courts and/or legislature will decide whether employers are responsible to pay out workers compensation claims for an employee that was injured in a traffic accident, even though they may have been texting at the time of the accident.

In the meantime, I would advise anyone who drives for a living to shut the phone off and pay attention to the road.  If your employer requires you to text and drive at the same time, then you may want to consider whether this is someone you want to work for.  Whether the employer likes it or not, your safety is more important than productivity.