By day, Brian Ceccarelli works as a software engineer at Cary. But at night, he describes himself as a “red light thief”.
For more than a decade, Ceccarelli, 61, has been on a mission to rid North Carolina of automatic red-light cameras, which photograph vehicles at red lights and then send fines to drivers. In 2010, he sued the city of Cary after receiving his second citation by camera, arguing that the time allowed for yellow lights was too short. Bringing a whiteboard into the courtroom, he served as both an expert witness and a plaintiff. He lost in 2013, but the city quickly shut down his program.
Today, Ceccarelli operates the “Red Light Robber” website, which recruits plaintiffs to bring lawsuits against what it considers to be faulty, dangerous and unconstitutional local traffic systems.
And he found takers.
Several ongoing cases against red light camera systems in North Carolina could reduce the already dwindling number of municipalities operating them.
Automated red light camera programs exist in four North Carolina cities: Raleigh, Fayetteville, Wilmington and Greenville. But in March, the North Carolina Court of Appeals ruled unanimously Greenville program violated State Law by failing to pay at least 90% of the fines collected under its K-12 public school camera program.
Greenville had donated at least 90% of its red light fines to local schools in Pitt County, but the city would then bill the district to have some of the money returned. Keeping more money has allowed Greenville, which is located about 80 miles east of Raleigh, to self-fund its camera program to a greater extent, says Paul Stam of Apex-based law firm Stam, who represents plaintiffs Eric Fearrington and Craig Malmrose in their case against Greenville.
Stam, who goes by the name Skip, served 16 years in the North Carolina General Assembly, representing southern Wake County. A Republican, he served as president pro tempore from 2013 to 2016. He began to see red-light cameras as a problem after Ceccarelli, a voter, made contact with Cary’s program. Through Ceccarelli, Stam also became convinced that the statewide amber light time was too short.
“The camera is not the problem,” he said. “The camera reveals the problem.”
Kevin Lacy, the state traffic engineer at the North Carolina Department of Transportation, pushed back against that claim.
“There’s no problem with yellow lights,” Lacy said. “The legal teams that came up with this approach did a great job of creating considerable doubt, which is their job.”
Greenville appealed the Fearrington decision to the North Carolina Supreme Court, which has yet to decide whether it will hear the case. Stam anticipates that the city will end its camera program if it is forced to pay for it by other means, such as raising taxes or diverting money from other departments. And the city suggested he might be right.
Asked how the city might react if the Fearrington decision isn’t overturned, Greenville spokesman Brock Letchworth said the city “will consider whether they wish to continue with the program given that a new contract would result in probably an increase in costs for the city”. Letchworth noted that Greenville has updated its funding system to comply with the appeal ruling in the meantime.
In 2006, the city of High Point rolled back its red light camera program after the state Court of Appeals ruled on the city had to donate more of its income to local public schools.
According to Stam, neither Fayetteville nor Wilmington uses their red-light camera revenue in accordance with state law. In July, his firm filed a lawsuit against the city of Wilmington and will soon do the same in Fayetteville.
Most of his red-light camera complainants, Stam said, came to his business after visiting Ceccarelli’s Red Light Robber website.
Raleigh’s red light program is unique
In the way it funds its SafeLight red-light camera program, Raleigh has to play by its own rules.
When the General Assembly granted municipalities in Wake County the right to install red light cameras in 2001, it allowed them to use the fines collected to cover program costs. Any remaining funds would then go to local schools. That’s why Raleigh was only able to donate 9% of its SafeLight citation money to Wake County Public Schools last year, according to Rob Murray, spokesman for the city’s Department of Transportation.
Stam said he made it a point at the General Assembly to prevent other municipalities from receiving this type of funding exception.
Raleigh launched its SafeLight camera system in 2003 and released nearly 30,000 citations last year. The quote is $50, with another $50 added for late payment. The cameras are operated by Conduent, a New Jersey-based IT management company.
Raleigh strategically places its cameras at high-risk intersections using data on collision types and frequency, Murray said.
“Previous third-party reviews, particularly on the Raleigh program, have shown that this tool (red light cameras) has a significant impact in reducing corner crashes,” Murray wrote in an email to The News & Observer.
Although research supports this claim, the overall success of red light cameras is mixed.
“The effectiveness of red-light camera programs has been a source of controversy in the research community,” the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said. online states. “The methodologies used to assess effectiveness have varied, as have the conclusions drawn from different studies.”
A research dissertation 2019 from the Center for Traffic Safety Research at the University of North Carolina found that the presence of red light cameras generally increased rear-end collisions while reducing side collisions. He recommended that cameras be better placed at intersections with a greater ratio of angle collisions to those behind.
A 2004 study by two NC A&T State University professors was less favorable to the cameras. Over a period of nearly five years, Mark Burkey and Kofi Obeng analyzed more than 300 intersections in Greensboro. They found a 40% increase in rear-end collisions, side collisions, and overall collisions at intersections with red-light cameras.
Greensboro ended its camera program the following year.
The number of cities with automatic red-light cameras in the United States peaked in 2012 at 533, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a nonprofit organization funded by automakers, and has since fallen to less than 350.
In North Carolina, local governments must receive General Assembly approval to operate a red light camera program. Since gaining the right in 2001, Charlotte, Cary, Chapel Hill, Knightdale, Greensboro and High Point have all stopped their camera programs.
“It was supposed to be a security tool”
All traffic signals in North Carolina follow the standards established by the Federal Highway Administration’s Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices. The manual says all yellow lights should last between three and six seconds, with state and local departments taking into account the speed limit, terrain and perceived speed to determine the time.
Lacy of the state Department of Transportation said the problem was not in the length of amber lights but in red-light camera programs that penalize drivers for entering intersections a little too late. North Carolina, he explained, is an all-red state, meaning traffic lights will momentarily stay red in all directions between color changes. So, he said, there is no real risk of a crash when a car crosses an intersection a tiny bit late, although an automated camera could still ring the driver.
“They send out all these tickets for people who, by the letter of the law, ran a red light, but the red light camera was not intended to be an enforcement tool,” Lacy said. “It was intended as a safety tool to stop people from running red lights and getting into wrecks.”
Lacy suggested that camera programs would be improved if they focused on penalizing drivers who entered intersections after all-red periods.
In its challenges to the remaining red light systems, Stam and its partners argued that the engineering principles behind the length of the amber lights are flawed. They invited Ceccarelli to speak as an expert witness, but his arguments so far have not prevailed.
Another argument the law firm Stam has made against red light camera systems is that they inherently violate the state constitution.
In 2018, Stam filed a separate lawsuit against the City of Greenville and Pitt County Schools alleging that the red-light camera systems violated Article II, Section 24, of the state constitution which prohibits the General Assembly from creating local bills “relating to health, sanitation and nuisance reduction”.
Yet that did not sway the state Supreme Court, which in June refused to consider reversing the unanimous Court of Appeals decision that allowed red light camera systems to continue operating in the state.
This story was produced with the financial support of a coalition of partners led by Innovate Raleigh through an independent journalism grant program. The N&O retains full editorial control of the work.
Do you appreciate Triangle’s technological news? Subscribe to N&O’s Weekly Open Source Tech Newsletter here.