Riding the Bull Market in North Carolina

Published in the Daily Advance, Elizabeth City, NC, October 31, 2010

HERTFORD — Josh Faircloth remembers how many years he’s been bull riding.

But he has lost count of the number of injuries he’s sustained.

As part of the culture of what’s dubbed the “toughest sport on earth” or at least the “toughest sport on dirt,” as it was marketed at the 10th annual River City Bull Bash over the weekend, riders don’t complain much about their injuries.

Instead they swagger like the cowboys of the old west that they emulate, stare moodily like Clint Eastwood into the middle distance and spit a lot into the dirt.

Faircloth was one of the competitors at Meyler Farms Arena. Although he didn’t win, he came to the competition with an impressive record in bull riding and has just returned from the Bull Riding World Finals in Las Vegas where he rode Big Tex,

one of the top five bulls in the world.

Faircloth, from Randleman in North Carolina, has been riding bulls since he was 14, when he started jumping on the backs of his grandfather’s beef cows on the farm where he grew up.

“My cousin started riding bulls and said ‘Let’s go down there and buck grandpa’s beef cows.’ So we got down there, built a little chute and I thought I liked this,” he said.

Now 21, Faircloth said he still thrives on the excitement of the big event.

“It’s the adrenalin rush. It’s a lot of fun and you never know what will happen next,” he said.

But he said the sport is very dangerous. “I’ve had broken noses, broken ribs, several concussions. Nothing really serious yet — knock on wood. We all know the dangers and we know it can happen any time but I don’t look at is as any different from jumping in your car and going somewhere.”

He believes he’s been concussed about 10 times, but has lost count.

Although North Carolina is not as commonly associated with bull riding as states such as Texas and Oklahoma, Faircloth said the sport is taking off here. “Really, today North Carolina has many weekly bull ridings. Within an hour-and-half’s drive from my house I can be at a bull riding every night of the week — it’s getting on the map for a lot of good bull riding.”

Although Faircloth has lost count of how many competitions he’s won, he said the sport is too unpredictable to ever be confident.

“You can be at the top of your game one minute and ride the best bull in the world and you still have to do it again. One mistake and you’re bucked off,” he said.

Bull riding isn’t just about the rider. The success of a score depends on the unwillingness of a bull to be ridden. A rider will get a higher score if he stays on the back of a bull that kicks and bucks harder.

To register a score, the rider has to stay on the back of the bull for at least eight seconds, a feat that eluded many riders Saturday night.

“Your bull is half your score. You want a good bull,” said Faircloth. He rated most of the bulls at the event as “even.”

Beau Bowman, a veteran bull rider from Pennsylvania, said the battle against fear is part of the bull riding equation. “It’s definitely a total mental game more than a physical game. The best I have done as far as bull riding, physically I wasn’t able to walk and do a lot of things. I basically didn’t think. It made it so easy.”

Bull Bash organizer Carey McNeill, who has a long track record as a bull rider, has been bringing the Bull Bash to the Elizabeth City area for a decade now. While it’s a major logistical exercise, he pledged to keep holding the event, the only one of its kind in the area.

“Bull riding is the ultimate man against beast competition,” McNeill said. “It goes back to the old gladiator days.Even though it’s not a team sport, the camaraderie is really outstanding. The guy in first place may be helping another guy who’s got a good chance of beating him.

“These guys don’t get paid unless they win. They ride injured, they ride a lot of times when they shouldn’t ride. It’s a lifestyle more than anything.”

On Friday and Saturday 35 riders from 12 states faced the bulls. Caleb Laws from East Lansing, Michigan won Friday’s event and Will Jennings from Elizabeth City finished in second place.

Saturday’s competition was won by Chad Vanamburg of New York state.

The competition began with Old Glory being paraded around on a horse and the competitors lined up behind trails of burning gasoline as well as the release of one of the most feared bulls in the area, Dismal Swamp Jack, into the arena.

Spectators braved cool conditions to make the trip to Meyler Farms. Peter Jones came down from Hampton Roads to be at the event.

“I’m a big fan of bull riding but there aren’t many events like this in this area,” he said.

McNeill had hoped for about 5,000 people on Saturday but the actual figure was about 1,500. The event was originally scheduled for August but put back because of bad weather.

McNeill said the cool temperatures may have affected turnout. He hopes to hold the Bull Bash earlier in the year in 2011.


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Ford Drives in a Greener Direction

The Daily Press, Feb. 27, 2012

The car manufacturer Ford would like people to think its cars are good enough to eat. It may not be so far from the truth.

During a conference in Williamsburg Thursday, attendees heard about how the company is increasingly seeking organic materials such as soy beans, sugar and wheat products in the manufacture of its vehicles.

Angela Harris, a biomaterials research engineer with Ford in Dearborn, Mich., was the keynote lunch speaker at the 2012 Virginia Grains and Soybean annual conference at the Williamsburg Marriott.

Angela Harris

Although the drive to incorporate more sustainable materials in the manufacture of cars is relatively new, beginning just over a decade ago, Harris said Ford’s long history of seeking to use these materials goes back to the days of company founder Henry Ford.

In the 1930s and 1940s, Ford, who founded the Fort Motor Co. in 1903, carried out work with crops, Harris said. The company had its own soybean field and was looking at how the crop could be used in manufacturing.

“He was really passionate about farming,” said Harris.

In 1941, Ford manufactured a “soybean” car that was made of a plastic material that included soybeans in its composition.

The soy bean laboratory can still be seen at Dearborn, Harris said.

Harris said researchers started to focus on incorporating sustainable parts in cars about 10-12 years ago in Michigan.

The research followed concerns that petroleum, traditionally used to manufacture plastics, is a “limited resource” controlled by overseas markets.

“Depending on foreign sources for it is very unstable and volatile as we all know,” she said.

Researchers started looking at agricultural products that could be grown in the United States to make plastics. Harris said customers increasingly want renewable materials and have welcomed the shift toward greener methods.

“It’s our goal to increase the use of recycled and renewable materials every year in our vehicles across all of our vehicle platforms,” she said.

For about a decade Ford’s researchers have worked on the manufacture of polyurethane foam from soy beans, Harris said. About 10 percent to 40 percent of the petroleum previously used in the product has been replaced with soy. The technology was first introduced in the 2008 Ford Mustang.

The Ford display of biomaterials used in car manufacture

“Since that time we have migrated it to all of our vehicles that we’ve produced in North America. All of our Ford vehicles have soy foam in the head rests and now in seat backs and seat cushions,” she said.

Ford is also using wheat straw and other plant fiber-reinforced plastic for vehicle storage bins and interior door panels on a limited number of vehicles and plans to extend the use of wheat, Harris said.

In addition, the company is considering the use of coconut fibers in its plastics, although that project is still in its infancy.

Future technology being investigated includes a polylactide product that resembles clear polystyrene, but is derived from corn.

Harris said Ford is working with Ohio State University to look for homegrown alternatives to natural rubber. One being considered is the Russian dandelion as well as guayule, a bush that grows in the southwestern United States. The company will look first at manufacturing a “low risk application” such as cup holders, she said.

The potential for the production of natural latex from the desert shrub guayule to make gloves, medical devices, and other in-demand natural rubber products, was raised in an article in ScienceDaily in 2009.

Contact David Macaulay at macaulaylegalmedia@gmail.com

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Tracking down the truants – a game of cat and mouse

The Daily Press, March 29, 2008

Police Officer Mark Wagner described the hunt for truants as a “cat and mouse game.” The latest figures on youngsters skipping school in Newport News suggest the cats are getting sharper claws or there are more mice out there.

 As of March 23 the actions of police patrols and street watch groups led to the identification of 1,110 truants in the city this year, breaching the 2007 total of 1,102.

The Newport News Police Department started its truancy patrols about two years ago in response to concerns about crimes such as breaking and entering that were taking place in the daytime at city homes.

“We are seeing more truants picked up,” said Police Chief James Fox. “I think that’s because we have sold this to our officers and they know it works. “Young people get on the wrong track by doing little things. By skipping school they can get on the wrong track.” In one case, Fox said a juvenile whose problems started with skipping school is now up on a homicide charge. The police chief believes the patrols have helped cut crime.

He said offenses of breaking and entering fell last year and crime is down 14 percent over this time last year. Wagner is the front line in the operation against truancy in northern Newport News. He patrols the area around city schools from 8 a.m. to noon on school days. Another officer patrols the southern part of the city. “This year we have already exceeded the number of students we brought back last year,” he said.

Part of the success of the strategy has been the willingness of officers on routine patrols to also look out for truants and to return them to schools. On Friday, Wagner picked up a steady stream of students skipping school, but he said word quickly gets round when his patrol car is seen nearby. “If they know you are out there, they will start using side streets so you have to think ahead and use side streets,” Wagner said.

As well as looking out for youngsters who don’t go to school, Wagner seeks students who have left the campus without permission. “You have the young ones that leave to go to 7-Eleven and McDonald’s and go back. That’s still considered skipping,” he said.

Wagner is aware of truancy hot spots such as the 7-Eleven on Denbigh Boulevard. He has picked up truants as young as 9 or 10. “A lot the problems of middle school kids comes from playing around and missing the school bus,” he said. “I don’t think their act is intentional. The majority of the students I get are walking to school but are getting up late.” In the streets around Menchville High School, Wagner scanned the parked cars.

“Menchville kids jump in cars and drive off, so we have to catch them in their cars,” he said. Assistant Principal Joseph Edwards said the school patrols were “very effective.” “Every school is trying to increase their attendance. It’s very important for them to be here because they can’t learn if they aren’t here.” He said schools used to conduct their own truancy patrols but as the number of students cutting class increased, it was necessary to call on the police department.

Edwards said truants were a “small minority” but some were “more consistent than others.” “If they don’t come, they will lose out on the skills necessary for the 21st century.” Wagner said identifying truants often leads to the detection of other offenses.

Last week he picked up a 15-year-old Denbigh High School student with two grams of marijuana on her. “Technically truancy isn’t a crime, it’s more of a juvenile status offense. But when you come into school with marijuana, it’s a different ball game,” he said. “She was automatically expelled from school.”

About 3 miles from Denbigh High School, Wagner spotted a 16-year-old student in a residential area an hour and a half after classes started. He told the officer he was about to go to school but needed to go home to get his project. Wagner took him back to the school. In some cases parents appear powerless to make their children attend classes. Wagner was sent by Denbigh staff to Sherwood Arms Apartments in Denbigh to pick up a 15-year-old. “Apparently his mother can’t make him go to school. She’s calling me to do it,” Wagner said.

After a short conversation in the apartment, the 15-year-old grudgingly accompanied the officer to school, arriving shortly before 10 a.m. “He said he didn’t want to go to school because his head was hurting.

His mother is near her wit’s end. She often comes up to the school and he isn’t there,” Wagner said. But some students picked up by the officer were given the benefit of the doubt. One girl found walking near the school on Denbigh Boulevard said she woke up late and missed a lift from her mom. She had walked more than 2 miles to school when she was picked up.

“That’s someone who wants an education and she had books in her hand,” Wagner said. “There are some students who have a legitimate reason. Some are coming from a doctor’s appointment and nine times out of 10 they will have a doctor’s note or a written note from a parent. But I think I have heard every excuse why they are not in school,” Wagner said.

“One of the better excuses I have heard is ‘I was on my way to school but I suddenly realized I didn’t have any lunch money so I was going back home. On the way home I got the money so I stopped at McDonald’s to get something to eat.’ ” David Flowers, assistant principal at Denbigh High, said the number of truants returned to the school varied. “Some days it can be one, some days 12,” he said.

Repeated truants and their parents can become subjects of a Child Development Team contract. If the child fails to comply, the parents can be referred to the courts. Flowers displayed two sheets full of names of students who are subject to contracts at the school but declined to give numbers. Marylin Sinclair-White, assistant principal of operations at Denbigh High, said the school has an auto-dial system to phone parents.

The system is triggered when students fail to show up. She said attendance had become more of an issue for schools in recent years. “They are given that option now by parents. Our parents didn’t give us that option. It wasn’t discussed. A lot of them have problems way beyond school that we cannot address with a one-ticket consequence.”

Jane Moreland, the truancy coordinator for Newport News schools, said the problem had not gotten worse in the city over recent years. “Our average daily attendance for high schools are averaging 92-93 percent, which is good for high schools in an urban area.

What we tend to deal with more at the high schools is students who show up and then leave. “As it gets warmer, it’s a lot easier and more fun to be out of school,” Moreland said. “We are concerned about any daytime crime that’s going on and I know there are some concerns right now in the Denbigh area.”

Moreland said the school department was not just interested in returning truants to school or resorting to court action, but in finding the causes of truancy. “The goal is to figure out why they are missing so much time, what it is that we can do better as a school division to have that connection, to create a more engaging environment so as they will stay.”

The school division is looking at setting up drop-out recovery centers next year to address the issue. “We are going to have centers which will offer alternatives to the schools they are in now … we are coming up with an array of services we can provide separate to them going back into the regular high school environment.”

Moreland estimates about 300 students in Newport News are subject to Child Development Team contracts, which normally follow more than five unexcused absences. “We need to correct this problem,” she said. “We probably have about 150 students in the works for courts.”

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Turning Back to the Dreaming Spires of Oxford

Looking back my time away in England feels like an unfathomable interlude or like a golden country only half remembered as viewed through a rain stained casement.

In Shadowlands, the Oxford academic CS Lewis dreams of escape to the Golden Valley on the misty hinterlands of Wales. But to me the Dreaming Spires of Oxford, as Matthew Arnold described the university skyline, always has a golden glow.

Oxford is about the past and while sadly I can’t claim to have spent three years in this cloistered world, I had friends who went to Oxford. There were parties and bus trips and fleeting summer days on Christchurch meadow.

Still the Oxford that fires our imagination is from antiquity. Who could not read Brideshead and not want to be with Sebastian and Charles in this elite world of yesteryear? And as Brideshead takes a bleaker turn, the student pranks take on an enriched glow of a world half remembered that we can never go back to. It’s a world away from the perfunctory reality of the Army that Charles finds himself in when he again sees the towers of Brideshead and two worlds away from Sebastian’s sad decline into alcoholism and illness in a different country entirely.

It’s the emotional intensity of Brideshead that, to my mind, makes it one of the best novels every written. It’s that sense of love lost that can never be recaptured along with the recklessness of youth and those sunny days under the Dreaming Spires that we thought would never end.

But I could go back to Oxford and did, although negotiating its streets with the world’s longest rental car, dubbed the Sausage Mobile, made driving into town a challenge. Parking is more so. We found a street but had to consider remortgaging our house to feed the meter.

Then there was the small matter of Zara’s cousin James, who had come along for the ride, to add to the joy factor.

James had already endeared himself to me by declaring with the certainty of a five-year-old: “You are very old aren’t you?

He followed this up by telling me. “You have a very large tummy.”

We set out to find an authentic pub and, for once, were rather successful in this endeavor. It was called the Royal Oak and it was pleasant with the early afternoon sunshine slanting through the windows, even if this was hardly Brideshead Oxford.

Finally we headed into the city center but I was conscious of the time ticking away on the parking meter. Oxford gets a bad press sometimes but there are few experiences better than losing yourself down mellow lanes of Cotswold stone and wandering around the lawns of the colleges; in this case St John’s that amazed with its cloistered elegance and intricate architecture. It looked far too ornate for anyone to study here.

Keeping the clock tower of Christchurch, the college where the rich and famous send their offspring, in sight we headed down the main street. But then disaster struck in the form of a shopping center, and I found myself sidelined with time running out on the meter, in the sort of mall that could be found anywhere in the world.

After a costly detour I prevailed, but spirits were lagging all round. By the time we reached Christchurch Meadow, a chorus of whining had replaced any enthusiasm showed earlier. As we trudged towards Magdalen College, I gave up on the idea of walking across the fields to see the classic view of the skyline.

Soon Zara and James were falling out over James’ habit of going through gates first and Jax was wriggling around and hurling his sippy cup at middle aged dames. The excursion across the meadow seemed to be taking us in the wrong direction. At this point James announced his need for a “number two.”

In the space of about 40 minutes to Dreaming Spires had become the Bleeding Nightmare. Fortunately we found a coffee bar and I went outside to take some photographs while we waited for the coffee to arrive. This turned out to be a mistake because James was shouting across the coffee bar from the toilet “Uncle David, Uncle David.”

My wife urged me to make haste to the bathroom because a group of old, learned and sour faced gentlemen were looking clinically unamused.

“What is it James?”

“I need someone to wipe my bottom.”

“Oh God.”

Later we made a route march back to the car. The parking meter had long since expired and we passed some of the most beautiful streets of Oxford in the late afternoon sunshine. Walking down these cobbled streets past the Radcliffe Camera and the Sheldonian Theatre, it becomes apparent that Oxford in places is every bit as pretty as Paris or Sienna.

Miraculously there was no parking ticket on the car. That happened two days later. And James continued to amuse as he projected his privileged lifestyle without even realizing it.

“So when you are grown up who will do the cleaning and cooking, James?”

“The Mummy.”

“And the garden?”

“The gardener.”

And after a series of private schools, he’ll probably one day end up gazing up at the Dreaming Spires, en route to a merchant bank and long hours, before the dream fades like the Oxford of Sebastian and Charles and he wakes up in a pinstriped suit and the micro meal in the dog.

But I never had Oxford so it’s not there for me to lose. Its squares and cobbled streets will never remind me of lost love or lost youth. I can return and catch glimpses and see it as an outsider would. Tourists are often derided but there’s something to be said for being a tourist from time to time

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When You are Tired of London

Brits in the USA blog, Sep. 3, 2011

London wasn’t a homecoming because it never felt like home. I grew up in the provinces and we looked at London is if it was some gigantic blood sucking spider which you never drove into, let alone lived in.

My parents had no interest in London but I was lured to visit by the sheer scale of the place, the numerous places of interest, the beautiful people and the in-crowd feel that attracted but ultimately served to remind me I was an outsider.

Still I could relate to those young kids who ran away from their homes in bleak northern towns, only to end up in the blighted streets around King’s Cross.

I never ran away but I moved there eventually and sometimes I wished I had stayed longer.

Now years later I was back, adopting the guise of a visitor, trying my best to do the objective thing of ticking off the sights. The first thing that struck me taking the train in from Kent, apart from the high fare, was the closeness of this great metropolis to the country. Rather than a smooth transition, I found myself looking out over rolling fields unchanged for centuries at one station, and bleak concrete flats looking over sickly strips of grass at the next.

St. Paul's Cathedral

But London really is different from anywhere else in England. It has its own smell and feel. There are gray/green railway bridges, tube station signs and dozens of city villages with cramped homes backing onto graffiti strewn railyards that sell for the equivalent of $500,000. The are upscale restaurants on even the most unprepossessing high street and beggars walking ragged dogs dogs on strings just a few yards away on the pavement.


Being a tourist is daunting because there’s far too much to see. I headed for Southwark Cathedral first. I’m not sure why – maybe because it’s the least known cathedral. Southwark tube station was a good bet but I was unable to find it initially. I headed to the Oxo tower which has become a precinct full of the most upmarket boutique stores imaginable. These outlets were so trendy, they seemed to defy the notion of a country in the grip of a recession. I avoided going inside to ask directions because I knew I would be sneered at.

The Oxo tower boasted an upscale roof terrace and a sign to a public viewing gallery. I got in the elevator for the top floor only to meet the gaze of a well coiffured gentleman in an Armani suit, who seemed alarmed to hear I was also going up to the restaurant floor.


Once on the top floor I inquired about the gallery and was haughtily ushered to a small platform past curious dinners spending more than $100 a head for lunch who had probably never seen anyone using the gallery before.

From here I walked the south bank where a soaring glass shard is rising up into the ever changing London skies. Just a few streets south of here the store fronts get meaner and the high rise estates that helped spawn the recent riots appear. But the south bank teems with business people in expensive suits and overseas visitors flitting from one attraction to another. When I finally found Southwark Cathedral it seemed diminished, hidden and overwhelmed by the tall buildings around it. While the Globe Theatre and the Tate were marked with numerous signs, the church was hardly recognized.

Southwark Cathedral and London's tallest skyscraper

I did the whistlestop thing; I took in the Tate Modern but the heat seemed oppressive and I quit after one gallery.

After walking round a vast pile of porcelain sunflower seeds by the Chinese artist i Weiwei, I felt this was as far as I could go.

The work is said to refer to hunger because sunflower seeds were a staple during the Cultural Revolution. Chairman Mao is also said to have referred to himself as a sunflower, and his people as the many scattered seeds.


London can also feel like a vast multifaceted sunflower at times that shines brighter than the rest of the country around it.


By the time I reached Trafalgar Square, passing a group of frighteningly hairy ladies on Whitehall, I had just about had enough of tourist London.

I have always found Trafalgar Square ungainly and forced as if it’s trying too hard to be a great world space. Like Paris’ Place de la Concorde it’s ungainly and pompous. Far more satisfying are quiet and elegant public spaces like the Place de Vosges.

Trafalgar Square was also packed with performers and groups of young people babbling away in a dozen different languages. Surprisingly it gained a certain grace through the camera lens.

Fighting off my fatigue I headed into the National Gallery but crashed out despondent on a bench in front of Stubbs’ iconic horse Whistlejacket and watched museum staff berate Italian visitors who were violating the “no photography” rule.

I realized if I didn’t get out of the gallery and immerse myself in a warm beer I would probably keel over at the magnificent hoofs of Whistlejacket.


“When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life;  for there is in London all that life can afford,” Samuel Johnson once said.

I looked around at all of the young people packed onto the Tube and started to wonder. I wondered how I endured the heat and the crowds. And I wondered if I had missed the big picture from time to time by enduring London rather than living it.

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Family plans “quiet celebration” of the lives of their children lost to a fire


The Daily Press, Dec. 4, 2009

Tawana and Eric Burks and their children will have a quiet “celebration” today. They will go out to see a feel-good movie and decorate their Christmas tree. And they won’t take any sad phone calls from relatives.

 But while they are putting a life- changing tragedy behind them, Dec. 4 will always have a grim significance. A year ago a wall-mounted candle in their apartment caused a devastating fire at the Colonial Village at Tradewinds apartment complex near Magruder Boulevard.

Although Tawana and her two children Jonathan, 2, and Judah, 10, escaped from a window, Tawana’s other two children – Jaida and Jordin Custodio, ages 8 and 7, respectively, died of smoke inhalation along with Tawana’s grandmother Jeanette Manchion, 72. Judah, now 11, took the loss of her siblings badly at first.

“She had a lot of fear of being alone because they all grew up together,” Tawana said. Eric and Tawana had said they would never get their kids a dog but relented after the apartment fire and bought them a Yorkshire terrier named Fugee.

“It barks at everything, so she loves that,” Tawana said. Jonathan also misses Jaida and Jordin, according to his mother. “He asked where are they and when are they coming back? ‘I just want to go where they are.'”

Tawana and Eric told him they were in heaven. Now he looks up every time their names are mentioned, Tawana said. She doesn’t leave photographs of Jaida and Jordin around the house because she doesn’t want Jonathan to talk to the pictures and the anniversary of her children’s deaths will not be a sad occasion.

“We plan to celebrate their lives instead of the tragedy of the day. We are going to be together as a family and not take any phone calls or emails. We will be alone and go out to the movies and we will pick out our tree and decorate the tree,” Tawana said.

The family plans to see the movie “The Blind Side” starring Sandra Bullock because it’s “feel-good.” Although they are determined to be positive, Tawana said it has been hard to cope. At first she could not comprehend the level of pain she was feeling.

“That was the worst for me – that out of control feeling,” she said. She wrote poetry and looked to her faith to help her. “You look around and see the whole world is still moving. You realize you can’t stay in this emotion,” she said.

“The baby needs to eat; you need to start buying clothes, get a new driver’s license and a new home.” Tawana and Eric said the congregation at their church, Victory Life in Hampton, and Machen Elementary School where her children attended, have been supportive.

The school organized clothing drives for the family. And now Eric and Tawana have a new child to look forward to. Tawana is due to give birth next April. Tawana remembers the fire vividly. Her grandmother was visiting the apartment and the kids had gone to bed. Eric wasn’t at home at the time. As flames devoured the building, Tawana handed her kids out of a second floor window to a rescuer and jumped out.

She feared the worst when she saw the window of Jaida and Jordan’s room was still shut and neither the children nor Tawana’s grandmother were at the tennis court where fire evacuees were gathered.

The family had been using candles because Dominion Virginia Power had cut off their power earlier that day over unpaid bills. Tawana and Eric say they are not angry about the actions of the power company.

They say a problem with the air conditioning unit at the apartment had led to a tripling of their electricity bill. They had been unable to pay a monthly bill of $535 and said they were sorting out the problem with Dominion Power and the management of the apartment complex. “We had budgeted for $150 a month,” Eric said. “Tawana was surprised at how quickly the fire took hold. “I never saw a building go up so fast,” she said.

 Jaida Custodio, 8, Jordin Custodio, 7, and their great-grandmother Jeanette Manchion died in a Dec. 4, 2008, fire at Colonial Village at Tradewinds in Hampton. The blaze was ignited by a candle that was being used because power at the family’s apartment had been cut off due to late payments. Twelve apartments were destroyed and 41 people were displaced

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Lights, Cameras, Cash

Daily Press, February 17, 2012

Cameras at the intersection of Oyster Point Road and Jefferson Avenue are catching red-light violators at a swift clip – and the money is adding up Almost 100,000 vehicles a day thunder across the busy intersection of Jefferson Avenue and Oyster Point Road, and some of them are running red lights with potentially fatal consequences. The problem was so bad at the intersection that in 2010, it became one of the first in Newport News to receive photo enforcement cameras to ticket red-light runners.

Crashes and near misses involving red light runners in various US locations…

 In 2011, more than 11,000 violations were recorded and approved, meaning the red-light running was found to be valid upon inspection of the camera images. The violations at Jefferson and Oyster Point were more than double the number at either of the two other intersections equipped with red-light cameras in the city: Jefferson and Mercury Boulevard, and Jefferson and Denbigh Boulevard.

The red-light enforcement cameras arrived in Newport News in the summer of 2010, partly as the result of a high-profile accident more than a decade earlier. Laura Nichols was driving through the intersection of Jefferson and Oyster Point in 1998 when she was broadsided by a driver who had run a red light.

She was almost killed in the crash, which left her in a wheelchair. Nichols campaigned before the General Assembly for years for a bill that would allow localities to install red-light enforcement cameras.

The legislature passed the bill in 2007, and Newport News was one of the first cities to opt for the program. Cameras went live on the northbound and eastbound sections of the giant Oyster Point intersection in July 2010.

Initially, only warnings were issued with notices, beginning on Sept. 30, 2010. Notices from Jefferson and Mercury were first issued in June 2010, followed by notices from Jefferson and Denbigh that July.

Although the cameras went live later at Oyster Point, more violations were approved there in 2010 than at the others, according to figures from the City of Newport News: *4,818 violations were approved at Oyster Point Road. *1,861 at Denbigh Boulevard. *3,401 at Mercury Boulevard.

The city paid $140,548 in revenue raised by the fines, which are $50 per violation, to the Arizona-based camera operator Redflex; a further $54,864 went to the city. The fines are civil violations that don’t lead to motorists getting points on their licenses.

In 2011, the first full year of operation for the cameras: * 11,411 violations were approved at Oyster Point. * 5,240 at Mercury Boulevard. * 3,513 at Denbigh Boulevard. The city took in $418,833 from red-light runners in 2011 and sent $346,441 to Redflex.

City spokeswoman Kim Lee said a set amount is paid each month to Redflex. The monthly figure is currently $29,472.36. The payment rate was 76 percent. The payment rate is explained by car owners who are not obliged to pay because they were not driving the vehicle when it was ticketed.

Lee said the number of violations at Oyster Point is a result of a “huge problem” with eastbound drivers not coming to a full stop before turning right on red. Drivers turning right onto Jefferson by the 7-Eleven are caught on camera if they don’t come to a complete stop. “Oyster Point is the only one that has a right-turn-on-red dedicated lane,” said Master Police Officer Jeffrey Westrick, who reviews the violations at Newport News police headquarters.

 The program has not been in place long enough to draw conclusions about its effectiveness. Traffic engineers want three years of data to compare, Lee said. The number of crashes associated with red-light runners in 2009, 2010 and 2011 are inconclusive, but city figures suggest crashes were at their lowest in 2011, the only complete year that the cameras were in operation. In 2009, when there were no cameras at the intersections, there were three crashes associated with red-light runners at Mercury and Jefferson, compared with seven in 2010 and two in 2011.

At Oyster Point, there were two in 2009, one in 2010 and one in 2011. At Denbigh and Jefferson, there were two in 2009, five in 2010 and one in 2011.

When a camera records a car going through a red light, the information is encrypted and sent to Redflex in Arizona. If Redflex says it’s a violation, it’s sent back to the police department. A sworn officer reviews every violation, Westrick said – about 150 a day.

The operation of the cameras is regulated by state law. The lights, for example, must be red for at least half a second before a summons can be issued. Drivers can be ticketed on a yellow light if they are traveling at a high speed.

The system photographs the license plate number, the vehicle at the stop bar and the intersection. Video is recorded from six seconds before the system is tripped to six seconds afterward, Westrick said.

State law also determines which intersections are eligible for cameras, using factors such as how busy an intersection is and how many accidents occur there. The Virginia Department of Transportation makes the determination. The state provides information about how many intersections in a given city can qualify for red-light cameras.

Newport News, based on its population, could have cameras at 18 intersections. Hampton does not have photo enforcement cameras but could have them at up to 14 intersections. Westrick believes Newport News should have more intersections with cameras. “Do people just crash on Jefferson? No. I’d say there are some intersections on Warwick that are just as dangerous as Jefferson,” he said.

Anecdotal evidence suggests the cameras have not acted as a major deterrent to red-light running, according to Westrick. “When Virginia Beach started this new program, they saw a decrease in running rates. We haven’t seen it. It hasn’t modified people’s driving behavior,” he said. The city’s revenue figures back this up.

In December 2010, for example, the cameras raised just more than $24,000 in revenue. In December 2011, the figure was $33,267. Virginia Beach had the first camera system in Hampton Roads in a 2004-2005 pilot program. The trial ended when legislation allowing the cameras expired.

But Virginia Beach adopted red-light cameras again in 2009, two years after new legislation, when 13 intersections received them. Master Police Officer Brian Walters, the city’s Photosafe coordinator, said officers issued 11 percent fewer citations in 2011 than in 2010. “It’s all positive,” he said. “It’s led to a change in behavior, and not just at the intersections with cameras but at intersections without them,” Walters said. “We have had a spillover effect of compliance.”

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