Drivers lose yellow-light lawsuit against Cary's red-light cameras

Drivers had enough time to avoid running red light, judge says

bsiceloff@newsobserver.comJanuary 18, 2013 

— A Wake County judge ruled Thursday that drivers who challenged Cary’s red-light camera program are not entitled to refunds of their $50 tickets.

The verdict from Superior Court Judge Paul Ridgeway ended a class-action lawsuit filed in 2010 by Brian Ceccarelli, an Apex computer consultant. Ceccarelli argued that Isaac Newton’s laws of motion had made it impossible for him to obey North Carolina’s red-light law.

After two years of depositions and four days of courtroom testimony steeped in the jargon of physics and traffic engineering, Ridgeway announced that Ceccarelli had failed to prove his case.

“The engineering principles used by the Department of Transportation do not create circumstances where drivers – who were and are subject to the immutable laws of motion – are incapable of complying with the law regarding safe travel on the roads of North Carolina,” Ridgeway said.

He said Cary had met its legal obligation under state law when it established a program using cameras to catch drivers running red lights. Even if it could be shown that state DOT engineers should have set longer yellow-light times at some intersections, Ridgeway said, there was no cause to make the town repay the $50 penalties collected from an estimated 9,500 drivers who were covered in the case.

“The town of Cary is pleased with the judge’s ruling,” Lisa Glover, Cary’s assistant town attorney, said afterward.

Ceccarelli expressed dismay.

“I am heartbroken,” Ceccarelli said. “That’s about all I can say.”

His lawyer, Paul Stam of Apex, said he was “very disappointed.”

Ceccarelli, 50, was caught on camera running a red light on Cary Towne Boulevard in 2009. A physics major in college, he argued strenuously that the yellow light was too brief to allow him enough time to avoid the violation.

He wrote essays and published a website attacking traffic engineers and the calculations they have used to determine the yellow-light duration. He produced evidence that DOT engineers had erred when they set that yellow-light time at 4 seconds, based on the mistaken idea that the Cary Towne Boulevard speed limit was 35 mph. The town reset the yellow time to 4.5 seconds last year, in keeping with the correct speed limit of 45 mph, and the numbers of red-light violations fell sharply.

Traffic engineers in many countries use the same formula to set yellow-light times. The answer depends on the speed limit – with longer yellows on faster streets. And it varies according to the values engineers use for other variables in the equation, including the time it takes for a driver to respond to a light change, and how quickly the driver can slow down and stop.

Ceccarelli and witnesses who testified on his behalf argued in favor of long yellow-light times, in some cases longer than the usual maximum of 6 seconds, so that drivers could easily avoid running a red light without having to slam on brakes or stomp on the gas. But Cary’s lead attorney, Elizabeth Martineau of Charlotte, said traffic engineers have good reasons to put limits on yellow lights.

“The longer the yellow, the more people will treat yellow as a continuation of the green,” Martineau said in closing arguments Thursday morning. “They’ll come up, ‘Ooh, the light just turned yellow, oh I’ve got 10 seconds, I can make it.’ The better practice is to mold people and model people and encourage people to stop.”

Ridgeway rejected contentions by Ceccarelli and his co-plaintiff, Lori Millette of Cary, that they could have avoided their red-light violations.

Even if the yellow light should have lasted longer, Ridgeway said, Ceccarelli could have stopped in time by hitting the brakes harder. Instead, Ceccarelli testified that he had stepped on the gas in an attempt to speed through the intersection before the light turned red.

Again, the judge echoed Ceccarelli’s references to Newton.

“Drivers at that intersection could, even with the shortened yellow light, safely bring their vehicles to a stop – as shown by the application of the laws of motion – within the time and distance provided, with only a slightly greater but still comfortable braking force,” Ridgeway said.

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

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