Judge refuses to throw out red-light camera challenge

bsiceloff@newsobserver.comJanuary 16, 2013 

A Wake County judge refused Wednesday to dismiss a class-action lawsuit against Cary and its red-light camera program, saying that drivers have no other way to challenge the $50 tickets they blame on bad science and faulty engineering practices.

Drivers Brian Ceccarelli of Apex and Lori Millette of Cary sued the town in 2010 over the $50 tickets they paid after cameras caught their cars running red lights. They argue that the yellow traffic lights were too brief to give them enough time either to stop safely or to reach the intersections before the lights turned red.

The case was certified as a class action last year, adding an estimated 9,500 drivers who could get refunds for tickets at six Cary intersections since 2009. Cary shut down its camera enforcement program in August 2012, citing other issues.

On Wednesday, after two days of trial testimony this week by Ceccarelli and other witnesses for the drivers, Cary’s lawyer asked Superior Court Judge Paul Ridgeway to throw out their case.

Attorney Elizabeth Martineau of Charlotte said Cary was blameless because its traffic signals use yellow-light times set by the state Department of Transportation, based on engineering calculations used for traffic signals across the United States. If drivers thought the red-light camera program was wrong, she said, they could ask the legislature to change it.

Ridgeway refused to dismiss the lawsuit.

“I’m curious how a citizen would ever be able to challenge either the science that is used to compute the yellow time or a mistake that was made, such as may have been made in this case,” Ridgeway said to Martineau. “Under what vehicle, other than what we have here, would a citizen ever be able to say this science is bad, this is unfair to a citizen who had received a citation, this is not just?”

The lawsuit is part of a multipronged campaign by Ceccarelli, a computer consultant, to ban red-light camera enforcement programs everywhere.

Ceccarelli calls himself a physicist, based on his undergraduate physics degree from the University of Arizona. He argues that traffic engineers in North Carolina and across the nation fail to recognize that Isaac Newton’s laws of motion make it impossible, in some situations, for cars to stop safely before the fleeting yellow light turns red.

In two years of expert depositions and three days of testimony this week, witnesses have dickered over how quickly a driver reacts to changes – 1 second? 1.5 seconds? – and how long it takes to slow down comfortably.

‘Dilemma zone’

If the driver is close to the intersection when a green light turns yellow, he or she can safely proceed before the light turns red. If the driver is far away, there is plenty of time to stop before the light turns red.

At a middle distance engineers call the “dilemma zone,” drivers must decide whether to stop or go. Sometimes they slam on the brakes to stop – or step on the gas to speed through the intersection.

Ceccarelli accelerated to 50 mph in a failed attempt to beat the red light on Cary Towne Boulevard at Convention Drive in 2009.

Part of his claim against Cary is that traffic engineers erred in setting the yellow-light time at 4 seconds, based on a speed limit they incorrectly thought was 35 mph. But he says Cary Towne Boulevard had a 45-mph limit in 2009 – something town officials have not conceded – and the signal should have had a longer yellow-light time.

Cary reset the yellow light at that intersection to 4.5 seconds in 2010, giving drivers more time to stop. And the numbers of red-light violations there fell sharply.

6 seconds or longer

But an expert witness for Cary, who testified all day Wednesday, said there could be other explanations – besides the extra half-second of yellow-light time – for the drop in tickets.

“The change could account for a small portion,” said Daren Marceau of Cary, a traffic engineer and consultant. “It’s not going to account for all of them.”

Ceccarelli says drivers need yellow-light times of 6 seconds or longer, but Martineau said that would introduce new problems.

“You may initially have red-light violations go down,” Martineau told Ridgeway. “But once people get used to the new reality, they treat the yellow as an extension of the green. And it just creates more problems.”

Ridgeway will hear closing arguments Thursday. He has not said when he expects to rule in the case.

Siceloff: 919-829-4527 or blogs.newsobserver.com/crosstown or twitter.com/Road_Worrier/

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