Road Worrier

Driver sues, blames yellow light

Staff WriterDecember 21, 2010 

Brian Ceccarelli blames higher law for his violation of Cary traffic law.

He says Isaac Newton's laws of motion kept him from stopping his car at a Cary intersection on Nov. 6, 2009, before a fleeting yellow light turned red.

A red-light camera snapped his picture, and Ceccarelli received a $50 ticket for running the light at Cary Towne Boulevard and District Drive.

Since then, Ceccarelli has built a website ( and filed a class-action lawsuit in Wake County Superior Court - both dedicated to his Newtonian defense.

"We have to obey the law of gravity," Ceccarelli, 49, a computer programmer who lives near Apex, said by e-mail. "We have to obey the law of momentum.

"Cary says a 45 mph car and a 20 mph car decelerating at the same rate must stop in the same time. There is no way this is possible in this universe, but Cary penalizes us $50 for not being able to make it happen."

Ceccarelli and three co-plaintiffs say Cary's yellow lights should last a few seconds longer, to give drivers more time to stop before the light turns red.

"We view the current settings of the yellow-light durations to be unfair and unsafe," said Bill Peaslee of Cary, one of Ceccarelli's lawyers. "And that's why we brought the lawsuit."

They have plenty of company. Drivers have complained for years about fleeting yellow lights at Cary's red-light camera intersections.

Yellow-light timing

Engineers base duration times for yellow lights on traffic speed and other factors. In a 33-page online treatise bearing Newton's portrait, Ceccarelli contends that Cary ignores minimum times recommended by the state Department of Transportation. And he calculates that a good physicist would set the times even longer.

At the intersection where he was ticketed, with a 45 mph speed limit, Ceccarelli says, the yellow signal was set at 4.0 seconds but the DOT recommendation was for at least 4.5 seconds. Then he plugs in some Newtonian formulas and concludes that drivers need 7.4 seconds of yellow.

Ceccarelli said the 4.0-second time was calculated when the speed limit was 35 mph for Cary Towne Boulevard. But it's faster now, and drivers need more time to stop.

"When the speed limit was bumped up to 45 mph, they never bothered increasing the yellow light time as required by DOT," he said.

Ceccarelli hopes to make the case a class-action lawsuit on behalf of many drivers who have been nabbed by Cary's cameras.

After reading about his lawsuit, several readers applauded Ceccarelli in e-mail messages to the Road Worrier:

"I was happy to see someone actually doing something about Cary's scamming of fees by setting yellow lights ridiculously short, shorter than recommended by DOT," Rosalind Ellwood wrote.

"I, too, have paid a $50 fine and thought that the timing of the light switch was too quick," Ed Huggins said.

"Cary needs to improve their timing on these lights and stop taking money from our pockets when there is not much to be had these days," Nicole Corolla said.

"I have come closer to having an accident because of them," Alex Cuningham said. "I speed up to get through before the light changes. I see people slamming on brakes or flooring it."

Cary is preparing for a court fight.

Town: Our timing is OK

"We review our signals regularly to make sure they are consistent with all appropriate standards - and that they do their job, which is giving people adequate notice that they need to stop," said Susan Moran, the town spokeswoman. "We share everybody's interest in making sure our yellow lights are timed appropriately, and right now we believe they are."

Red-light cameras are annoying, but they have been shown to be pretty effective in getting drivers to quit running red lights, and in reducing T-bone crashes at dangerous intersections.

The Road Worrier got one of these pesky $50 tickets a couple of years ago in Raleigh - where the yellow lights linger longer, giving drivers less excuse for running the red. Since then, he's more careful.

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