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Power Outages Lead to Traffic Tickets, Driver Frustration


EL CERRITO – Weekend power outages caused a series of traffic light failures that lead El Cerrito Police to issue a string of traffic tickets in a move that angered some residents.

“It’s obvious that they’re entrapping people into a ticket instead of taking care of the public safety,” said Barbara McGraw of Moraga, Calif., after she was stopped and given a ticket.

McGraw says she was on her way to church at 10:15 a.m. on Sunday morning when she approached the intersection of Moeser Lane and Richmond Avenue in El Cerrito, one of several city intersections that lost power throughout the weekend.

According to McGraw, she noticed the traffic light was out and slowed down to make sure the intersection was clear before continuing on. McGraw even acknowledges seeing the police cars sitting near the intersection but says she didn’t think she was doing anything wrong.

Before she knew it, she recalled, there were flashing lights in her rear view mirror and an officer was writing her a citation.

McGraw doesn’t dispute the fact the law requires her to stop before continuing through an intersection with inoperative traffic signals.

“My issue is, if it’s so dangerous that they need to stop to give everyone a ticket, why aren’t they out there directing traffic?” she said.

City police, who issued more than 60 such tickets throughout the weekend and 17 at the Moeser and Richmond intersection alone during the 90-minute power outage there on Sunday morning, say they were simply doing their job.

“We’re just enforcing the vehicle code,” said Sergeant Douglas Horgan, the on-duty watch commander at the scene. “Not everyone violates it. A lot of people do what they’re supposed to do. Most people are stopping.”

But for the 17 drivers who didn’t stop, including McGraw, there was frustration at what they perceived to be police taking advantage of a difficult situation, even neglecting public safety.

“I think it’s a deliberate traffic stop,” said Jimmy Zhou, an El Cerrito resident who received a ticket around the same time as McGraw. “They should be directing traffic if the light is out. It’s too dangerous…I didn’t even see the light,” Zhou said.

“It’s up to each agency if that’s how they want to use their resources,” said Horgan in response to complaints from drivers that the police weren’t directing traffic. “There’s no need for it if people follow the law.”

At one point, four police vehicles had violators stopped simultaneously in a row along the two-block span of Moeser Lane just east of the intersection.

“Every police officer working in the city right now is here,” Horgan said. He explained the concentration of officers was only possible due to a lack of other active service calls demanding their attention. If a call did come in, he said they would respond accordingly.

One El Cerrito woman, who lives within view of the intersection, wondered why the police didn’t at least erect temporary stop signs alerting approaching drivers.

Sergeant Horgan explained emergency stop signs can lead to confusion when the traffic lights come back on so they don’t use them.

The power outages began just after midnight on Friday and continued through 2 p.m. on Saturday afternoon affecting several traffic signals throughout the city including the intersection of San Pablo and Stockton avenues.

Sometime after 9 a.m. Sunday morning, the traffic light at the intersection of Moeser and Richmond lost power for the second time.

Tamar Farkissian, a spokesperson for Pacific Gas & Electric, explained the cause of the power outages.

“Over the summer months, dirt and pollution accumulate on insulators,” she said. “The first big rain of the season turns this into mud, an electrical conductor, which leads to something called electrical arching, or flashovers,” which in turn causes power failures.

According to police, the signal outages led to one automobile accident, a minor fender-bender that occurred at the Moeser and Richmond intersection just before power returned on Saturday afternoon.

Sergeant Horgan said the two-car collision happened because both drivers failed to heed the law and stop before entering the intersection. Fortunately, no one was hurt.

Both McGraw and Zhou both said they intend to fight their citations in court. They exchanged contact details and agreed to act as witnesses for each other.

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