Gary Blackwell sat behind the wheel of his green 2011 Honda Crosstour in the CVS parking lot at Gulf Drive and U.S. 19. He gripped a stopwatch and concentrated on the traffic signal. When the light turned yellow, he pushed the stopwatch. When it turned red, he pushed again.
Blackwell, a well-connected Realtor and developer who served two decades on the Pasco County Planning Commission, has been making these spot checks since August, when a camera caught him running a red light while driving north on 19. He recruited county traffic officials to do the same timing. In December, he got his son Christopher, a professor at the University of Central Florida, to hold the stopwatch.
They all got the same result.
Now it was my turn. I used my own stopwatch for six light changes over an hour Thursday morning. Once I got 4.4 seconds. Every other time matched what Blackwell said was the norm: 4.3.
This matters because the Florida Department of Transportation set a standard for this light — 4.5 seconds before yellow turns to red.
Gary Blackwell went to war over two-tenths of a second.
He never denied he ran the red light at 7 a.m. Aug. 16. The camera proved that beyond a doubt. But he felt that the yellow light didn't give him enough time. He says he talked to some other folks in the area who felt the same. Two-tenths of a second isn't much, but at 45 mph, the speed limit on this stretch of highway, a car will travel about 25 feet.
So he ignored the $158 ticket when it came from the Arizona company that operates the cameras for the city of New Port Richey. He knew that would mean $262 if he didn't pay within a few weeks, but he sent the ticket back and asked for a court hearing.
"I wasn't trying to be smart or get a break,'' said Blackwell, who has spent most of his 68 years in New Port Richey and even drove an ambulance as a young man before there was a U.S. 19 or red lights or red light cameras. "I'm wealthy. The $158 doesn't mean much. But it's the principle of the whole thing that matters.''
Blackwell has friends in high places. When Gov. Charlie Crist ran for the U.S. Senate in 2010, Blackwell hosted a rally at his house that included the rich and powerful. He knows commissioners and sheriffs and lawmakers. But for this battle, he didn't even hire a lawyer.
He visited the officer in charge of the red light program in New Port Richey, Gregory Williams. One particular statistical category alarmed him. From March through Dec. 16, the first-year enforcement program delivered citations to 7,500 motorists who ran the light at Gulf and 19. That seemed like a lot, considering only 3,600 got caught at the Marine Parkway intersection a bit south. Even at the busy Main Street intersection less than a mile north, the city caught 6,500.
Blackwell thought this odd, but focused on the yellow light standard. He figured the hearing officer appointed to review his case would kick it once the county traffic operations officials delivered their stopwatch findings. But he was surprised to learn what happened next. Officer Williams, getting ready for Blackwell's challenge, asked the county's top traffic manager, Bob Reck, for a report on the light and Reck certified it worked according to DOT standards.
Reck explained that to me in an email: "When measuring fractions of a second with a stopwatch, you must take into account the delay time that it takes the human brain to process the visual image of the light and send a signal to the muscles in the hand to start and or stop the stopwatch.''
He added that the traffic center relies on "the highly accurate electronics of the signal system and signal controller . . .''
Blackwell wondered why that lapse time between brain and stopwatch wouldn't occasionally lead to a reading above 4.5 seconds.
Whatever, the issue took on less of a personal importance late in the week when the hearing officer ruled on Blackwell's case.
He threw it out.
Blackwell chuckled at the suggestion they might be tired of messing with him. It might also have something to do with the proliferation of lawyers successfully seizing on even the slightest of flaws in the new red light camera programs around Florida.
Blackwell says he fully supports the red light program, although he wishes safety got more emphasis than all the money that cities hope to make. He is still convinced there needs to be a longer yellow light at Gulf and 19, but that would have to be ordered by the DOT. Altering it now probably wouldn't be all that wise from a legal defense standpoint.
As for the apparent imbalance of citations at New Port Richey intersections, Bob Reck had a logical explanation, one that Blackwell said he hadn't heard before last week. The city stations two red light cameras at Gulf Drive, one for northbound traffic, one for south. Three other intersections — Main Street, Marine Parkway and Cross Bayou — have a single camera ready to catch you running red lights.
If only they could catch you texting, too.