Some lessons learned from a morning in Suffolk County traffic court:
1. The odds of beating a red light camera ticket are very, very small.
2. Not to say you can't. It helps to have evidence that the camera was wrong.
3. If we all were to make complete stops before turning right on red, the courtroom would be almost empty.
The lessons come from a court session last Wednesday, the day the Suffolk County Traffic and Parking Violations Agency in Hauppauge devotes to disputed red light camera tickets. More than 100 cases were scheduled for the morning session. Most of those drivers didn't bother to show up, so when the session convened at 9:30, just more than 30 had assembled. Judicial Hearing Officer Allen Mathers offered instruction on what types of driving behavior would not qualify for a free pass; when he was done, a handful of people left, presumably to pay their fines.
The proceedings moved into a smaller room with wooden benches that can seat up to 15 people at a time. Each person had the opportunity to view a video of his or her red light infraction, then present a defense to Mathers. Over the next 2 1/2 hours, the remaining 25 cases were resolved:
Two were dismissed.
Two were adjourned so drivers could try to obtain documentation related to medical situations cited as contributing factors.
The remaining 21 were found to be in violation and ordered to pay the $80 fine or, in some cases, multiples of $80 based on the number of violations.
Of those, three had made left turns after the traffic signal turned red. Three had driven straight ahead.
And 15 drivers — 71 percent — had made right turns on red.
That percentage is close to the program's overall experience, according to Paul Margiotta, executive director of the Traffic and Parking Violations Agency. He said 72 percent of red light camera violations in the county have been issued for right turns.
The requirement of a complete stop before a right on red was a surprise to many of those contesting their tickets.
"I didn't know it's a law that you have to stop," said one.
Another insisted his turn was not illegal because there was no sign prohibiting it. "But you must stop first," Mathers said.
Driver: "But all the other cars [in the right-turn lane] are moving."
Mathers: "They're probably all getting tickets, too."
As for the two cases that were dismissed:
"That's not my vehicle," one man said of the truck in the video. His evidence: The license plate number was not his. It was off by one digit.
The second dismissal involved a right turn at Route 25 and Holbrook Road in Centereach. Though the video showed the driver coming to a stop, the notice of violation said he hadn't done so before passing over the white stop line.
The driver insisted he had stopped in time. From our vantage point, the video wasn't definitive.
Mathers said it was a close call, then handed down the verdict: "Dismissed, using the ancient historical tradition of the tie goes to the runner."
Mathers has been on the receiving end of red light tickets, too. When the program was new, "three years ago, I got three tickets," he said in opening remarks, then added: "None since."
As for the three drivers who drove straight through a red light? One was timed at 1.2 seconds after the light changed, one at 1.1 and the other, just 0.2 seconds.
A lesson for us all.