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Friday, July 13, 2012

Red Light Cameras and the laws of physics

Do red light enforcement cameras cause a warp in the space-time continuum?
By Will Collette

Shortly before the Charlestown Town Council voted to award the contract for red-light enforcement cameras to Sensys America at its June 11 meeting , I received an odd e-mail from Brian Ceccarelli, of Apex, NC. He cc’d me a copy of an e-mail he had sent to all members of the Town Council warning them of dire consequences if they approved installation of red light cameras.

The contract contains a “cost neutrality” provision that guarantees that if the fees from red-light running tickets fall below the cost of the contract, the company will forgive the town’s debt. We should soon see some public education efforts by Sensys and the town prior to the actual installation of the cameras.

But about those dire consequences….

Mr. Ceccarelli has apparently devoted a lot of energy to campaigning against red light enforcement systems nationwide, and he claims some success.

He warned the Charlestown Town Council that if they allow red light cameras to be installed, Charlestown faced severe consequences, including the crippling cost of litigation by people who will employ Ceccarelli’s scientific evidence that red light cameras defy the laws of physics.

He noted that he brought a $6 million class action lawsuit against the town of Cary, NC. He claimed the town’s litigation costs so far total $250,000 and the town “will end up paying over $7 million when the trial is over.”

Whoa! I asked Mr. Ceccarelli if he planned to sue and he wrote back:

No.   I do not plan on filing a lawsuit against Charlestown. But within next couple of years, someone will. From this point on, every dollar Charlestown receives from red light camera enforcement Charlestown will have to pay back in restitution. As long the Charlestown implements the ITE Yellow Light Interval Formula, which they do, the receiving of monies is illegal. One cannot enforce legislation which violates the Laws of Nature. [emphasis added] The Formula violates a basic equation of motion and forces drivers to run red lights. 

In his e-mail to the Charlestown Town Council, Mr. Ceccarelli explained the reason why red light cameras violate the laws of nature and physics:

Why?    Because the federal standard that sets yellow light durations  is a formula which violates a  fundamental law of physics, a violation that presents drivers in common driving situations a no-win scenario forcing them to run red lights. The reason why the red light camera industry is in business is because they literally bank on the physics error. The red light camera company offers you a nostrum—an old-time doctor’s snake oil which cannot deliver on its promise because the problem is not drivers behavior but rather a serious engineering flaw…A town council can neither pass a law penalizing people for walking on the ground, freezing water at 32 degrees, nor forbid them to follow the equation of motion v = at and Newton’s Second Law F = ma.      If you pass such a bill, you are violating a legal precedent called the Canute Rule—and common sense.   You will be sued and you will lose.   

Click here to read the details behind Mr. Ceccarelli’s theory.

In each of my earlier articles about red light enforcement cameras, I have said that I am a big fan of such systems. I am convinced they save lives. I am convinced they discourage law-breakers through automatic fines.

I have, however, expressed some skepticism about theeconomics of the deal being offered to Charlestown – and whether it will be practical without a gigantic increase in traffic ticket writing.

And I have criticized the vendor, Sensys America, for misrepresenting itself as a “Rhode Island-based, 100% American company” when that claim is wrong on both counts.

But I was intrigued, and frankly baffled, by Mr. Ceccarelli’s claim so, despite my doubts about his theory, I decided to put it out for you to judge for yourselves.
Sensys camera - like what we're getting-
radar activated

In a nutshell, Mr. Ceccarelli’s theory centers around that familiar moment of truth we all face at a stop-light that is about to turn red. Do we stop as we see the yellow light, do we keep going, or do we speed up?

I think here in Charlestown, most people cruise down US 1 at not less than 55 miles per hour. We have four stop lights. Each signal starts to change when crossing traffic stopped at a red light is sensed by a wire loop in the pavement.

On-coming traffic sees a yellow at an interval set by RIDOT, not the town. Each driver faces that moment of truth. Safe drivers decelerate and stop at a yellow. Some decide to risk it and keep going. Idiots decide to gun it and race through.

Making the wrong decision at the yellow could mean a violation. When the cameras go live, it will cost you $85 a pop to make that wrong decision.

By the way, the red light camera vendor has no control over the timing of the lights. Route 1 is a state road and those red lights are owned and controlled by the state.

Further, even if the camera catches you in the intersection after the light turns red, there is an addition step before you get a ticket – the Charlestown Police must review and make the final decision whether to issue the ticket. They will be able to see the video and the data and have to say “yes, issue,” before the ticket is issued.

Under the state's regulations, our traffic lights and red light enforcement system must conform to the timing standards set by the Institute of Transportation Engineers (Click here, see section 6.0). These are the standards Mr. Ceccarelli criticizes.

Mr. Ceccarelli believes physics and the laws of nature give you have no choice. He believes that the yellow light timing is set so you can’t help yourself but run the yellow and then the red.

You should read his theory and review his math. But remember that anybody can write stuff down and publish it on the internet – hey, I do it every day. But there is a big difference between assembling a set of math formulae and conclusions and putting them to the test in the physical world.

Ask yourself: how often in the course of a year’s driving do you find yourself compelled to run a red light? Yes, there are people who choose to run lights – many is the time when I have stopped at a yellow light only to have some idiot a couple hundred feet behind me blow through the red light. I ask myself: is he governed by different laws of physics? Or is he just an idiot?

I’m sure that when Charlestown’s red light camera systems go on line, lots of people will squawk that the system is unfair and that they really weren’t running the light – or the devil, or maybe physics – made them do it.

We will go from issuing almost no tickets for red-light running to probably quite a bunch of them. But there will be photographic evidence of each violation and the final decision to issue or not to issue the ticket remains in the hands of the Charlestown police.

Let some physicist or physicist wannabe argue the case that our municipal judge should ignore the lying eye of the camera and the picture of him cruising through the intersection on red, and instead look at the mathematical equation that says the laws of nature made him do it.

And maybe there will be lawsuits. In addition to physics-based suits, like Mr. Ceccarelli's, there have also been suits brought on claims of violations of privacy and other Constitutional grounds.

One of the bedrock principles of this country - in the United States of America, anybody can sue anybody for anything, and probably will. But that is not the same as being right.