Class-action ruling could add thousands of drivers to Cary red-light camera lawsuit

bsiceloff@newsobserver.com June 22, 2012 

Brian CeccarellI

BRIAN CECCARELLI

  • Traffic enforcement by robot Cary, Raleigh, Knightdale and Wilmington have North Carolina’s only red-light camera systems. The camera photographs cars that enter the intersection after the light has turned red. The car owner receives a bill for $50 and a copy of the photographic evidence, including a picture of the license number. The tickets are not counted as traffic violations, and do not affect driving records or insurance points.

— A Wake County judge has granted class-action status to a lawsuit filed by two drivers against Cary’s red-light camera traffic enforcement system, opening the possibility that Cary could be forced to refund $50 tickets paid by thousands of drivers since late 2009.

The lawsuit was filed in 2010 by Brian Ceccarelli, an Apex computer consultant. He blames his November 2009 ticket on a fleeting yellow light at Cary Towne Boulevard and Convention Drive, arguing that it was too brief to give drivers time to stop safely before the light turned red.

A second plaintiff, Lori Millette of Cary, blames a brief yellow light for the ticket she received in May 2010 while making a left turn at Kildaire Farm Road and Cary Parkway.

“My purpose all along is a safety matter,” Ceccarelli said Friday. “All I want is the town of Cary to increase the yellow time duration so they obey the law of physics, so people are safe.”

The ruling comes as Cary officials struggle with other problems that have cut public support for the cameras, which were installed to catch red-light runners at 18 intersections. Cary’s cameras crank out more than 13,000 tickets a year. A malfunction at one light was blamed this spring for 31 erroneous tickets paid since last summer.

“The program can’t continue the way it’s going,” Mayor Harold Weinbrecht said Friday. “We’ve spent a lot of staff time and money administering the program.”

The lawsuit is part of a multi-pronged campaign by Ceccarelli, 50, against red-light cameras everywhere. He excoriates them on a website, www.redlightrobber.com, and in essays that attack the formulas used by traffic engineers across the United States to determine how much yellow-light time drivers need before the traffic light turns red.

Ceccarelli calls himself a physicist on the strength of his undergraduate degree in physics from the University of Arizona. He argues that it is impossible for drivers to stop their cars in the short time allowed, citing Newton’s second law of motion, which explains the relationship between the mass of an object and the amount of force needed to make it accelerate or decelerate.

Ceccarelli’s arguments were dismissed in 2010 in formal papers published by the Institute of Transportation Engineers (ITE) and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), but he expressed disdain in reply.

“They are just stupid,” Ceccarelli said in April of traffic engineers, writing in response to the ITE critique.

“The only reason why IIHS is for red light cameras is because insurance companies get to raise premiums for drivers caught by camera,” Ceccarelli commented in March on a website article about the cameras’ use in Connecticut.

Ceccarelli said his lawyers have invested more than $300,000 in the case, money he’ll be hard-pressed to cover unless he wins the day and Cary is forced to pay the bill. He said he brought the lawsuit after engineers for Cary and the state Department of Transportation failed to respond to issues he raised about the red-light cameras.

Cary had sought to have the lawsuit dismissed, and had argued against expanding it to class-action status.

After months of depositions and court hearings, Wake Superior Court Judge Paul C. Ridgeway this week granted the request by Ceccarelli and Millette to make it a class-action case, adding other drivers who have been fined under Cary’s red-light cameras. Ridgeway defined the class of plaintiffs in two groups:

• Drivers who were ticketed at Cary Town Boulevard and Convention Drive between Dec. 2, 2009, when Ceccarelli appealed his ticket, and March 19, 2010. On that date, Cary recalibrated the signal at that intersection, adding one-half second to the yellow-light time.

• Drivers who have been ticketed since Aug. 1, 2010, while making left turns at any of these intersections that have cameras: Maynard Road at Kildaire Farm Road; Kildaire Farm at Cary Parkway; Cary Parkway at High House Road, and Walnut Street at Meeting Street.

Ridgeway’s seven-page order gave no details about how the affected drivers would be identified, or whether they would be notified about the lawsuit. Ridgeway said it was not clear how many drivers were affected. He wrote that attorneys for both sides had provided estimates ranging from hundreds to tens of thousands, depending on how narrowly the judge defined the class of plaintiffs.

Ceccarelli said he figured the ruling would make tens of thousands of drivers eligible for refunds of their tickets, if the plaintiffs win the case. A Cary town spokeswoman pegged the number somewhere below 9,000. Ceccarelli said he expects the case to go to trial in January, unless the two sides agree on a settlement.

Attorney Elizabeth Martineau of Charlotte, representing Cary, did not respond to a request for comment. Paul “Skip” Stam of Apex, lead attorney for Ceccarelli and Millette and a member of the state House of Representatives, said he would not comment on Ridgeway’s ruling.

In court documents, Ceccarelli blamed his ticket on a traffic engineer’s mistake. The duration of the yellow light at the intersection was based incorrectly on a speed limit of 35 mph, he said, but the posted limit actually was 45 mph. He said the number of tickets issued at that intersection each month fell by 80 percent after Cary officials made corrections a few months later, adding one-half second to the yellow light.

Cary’s camera system is operated by Arizona-based Redflex Traffic Systems, which is not named in the lawsuit. Redflex keeps nearly 90 percent of the ticket revenue. The rest goes to the Wake County schools.

Town officials said they were “very disappointed” in May when they learned that one camera had malfunctioned for a year, spitting out dozens of unwarranted tickets.

Town staff are researching the system’s performance and could present the data to the Cary Town Council this summer. Weinbrecht said the council will consider all options, including shutting down or dramatically refiguring the project.

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