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25 Sep 2012

Traffic Signals Are Out of Whack:Officials Try To Cover It Up

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Attorney Garland was retained in a case alleging that the defendant had run a stop light, then altered a document. The State claimed that the W.B. (not his real initials) then presented the altered document during a traffic court proceeding. The judge dismissed the red light ticket in reliance, at least in part, upon the allegedly altered document.

The case began on March 14, 2008, at about 8:35 A.M. W.B was driving a loaded down pickup truck westbound on Highway 70 (Okeechobee Road) in Fort Pierce. As the defendant’s pickup truck approached the signal at McNeil Road (at the main entrance to a Wal-Mart Superstore), the signal changed from green to yellow. Having driven the road several times each day, W.B. presumed he had plenty of time to get through the intersection before the light turned red. Unfortunately, the light turned red quicker than anticipated. A Fort Pierce police officer stopped W.B.’s pickup truck in order to write the ticket.

The entire encounter with the officer was recorded on the officer’s “on board” video system. W.B. complained repeatedly that the yellow light was “short”, and that he did not have time to stop. W.B. explained that his heavily loaded pickup truck could not have stopped in the time allowed by the yellow light. He received a ticket anyway for running the red light.

After receiving the ticket, W.B. and his father proceeded to time the yellow delays using a stop watch. Repeated timings demonstrated that the yellow light lasted less than 2.5 seconds before turning red. W.B.’s father was in the pickup truck during the entire incident and verified the circumstances of the short signal, as well as the repeated timings of the yellow light.

The officer reported W.B.’s complaint to an official with the City of Fort Pierce responsible for maintaining traffic signals within the City (the “traffic engineer”). The traffic engineer then contacted an employee with The Signal Group, Inc. (the “maintenance technician”).

The maintenance technician went to the intersection on the same day defendant was ticketed. The maintenance technician found that the yellow interval timings on the east and west approaches were three seconds, and that the signals “were running coordination with the other intersections up-and-downstream on this corridor”. The maintenance technician hand delivered a letter with these findings to the traffic engineer the following Monday, March 17, 2008.

The traffic engineer sent the ticketing police officer a copy of the maintenance technician’s report. However, the traffic engineer omitted a very important fact. The yellow intervals were required to last no less than four seconds under Florida Department of Transportation (DOT) rules. In fact, the signal was not functioning properly.

The traffic engineer sent the ticketing police officer an excerpt from the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices for Streets and Highways (2003 Edition). This Manual is published by the U.S. Department of Transportation (U.S. DOT). Apparently, the traffic engineer wanted to provide official documentation for a three-second yellow delay. Therefore, the traffic engineer made sure to enclose page 4D-9 of the Manual which advised: “A yellow change interval should have a duration of approximately three to six seconds.”

Unfortunately, the U.S. DOT Manual did not apply either to this intersection or to any other intersection along Okeechobee Road. During discovery, Attorney Garland found out that, in fact, the McNeil/Okeechobee Road intersection was governed by special Florida DOT regulations, because it was a “declared elder road user area”. In such an area, Florida DOT regulations require larger letters on signs and a minimum four second yellow delay. Garland found out that the City of Fort Pierce used a four second yellow delay on all of its signals.

The traffic engineer knew the McNeil/Okeechobee Road signal was not functioning properly. Upon receipt of the maintenance technician’s letter, the traffic engineer directed him to reset the light to a minimum four second yellow delay. To verify that the signal had been fixed, the traffic engineer personally went to the intersection and timed it.

Attorney Garland submitted public records requests to the City of Fort Pierce, Department of Engineering, for traffic signal maintenance records, as well as for timing sheets, for the signal in question. The timing sheets demonstrated that The Signal Group had been contractually committed to maintaining the yellow delay at a minimum of four seconds, and that this four second delay was in effect on March 14, 2008.

The client in this case desires anonymity and, therefore, the particular identifying facts of this case are not included. It is important to understand that traffic signals are complicated systems which require electricity, maintenance and observation. These systems are prone to failure for a variety of reasons. No one should accept at face value the blithe assertion that the signals were “working”, when there are credible reports that the signals are not working properly. This case was resolved, in large measure, by objective proof that the defendant’s complaint was absolutely correct: The signal was not working, and he should not have been ticketed for running the red light.

The case was resolved with a plea to misdemeanor perjury on June 1, 2009. The felony charges of evidence tampering and uttering a forged instrument were dropped. Adjudication was withheld on the misdemeanor and the client received one year of administrative (non-reporting) probation.

 

 

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