Bill to Change the Way California Sets Speed Limits Slows Down

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Assemblymember Laura Friedman has been working on A.B. 2363 – a bill to fix long-standing issues with speed limits in California. In its first committee hearing this week, the bill was amended to create a task force to study the complex issue from all sides—with a tight deadline for reporting its findings.

Currently, speeds are set according to how fast people are already driving. That’s supposed to prevent speed traps, and it’s also supposed to reflect the safety of the road design. But it ignores the history of street and road design, which has focused on making it safer to drive fast—eliminating curves and trees, for example, and widening lanes. The result is that speed limits are creeping upward even though research clearly shows that higher speeds reduce safety, and the higher the speed, the less safe for all.

The first draft of Assemblymember Friedman’s bill would have made small change to the current process. That is, it would have allowed a local jurisdiction to round a speed limit down, rather than up, when performing a speed survey for the purpose of determining a speed limit. But even that was too dramatic a change for the California Highway Patrol, the Teamsters, the Auto Club, and trucking industry reps, who strongly opposed the bill. Their resistance made Assembly Transportation Committee chair Jim Frazier (D-Oakley) oppose it.

It’s not easy to pass a bill when the chair of its first committee doesn’t like it.

But Friedman persisted, meeting with a wide range of interested parties and signaling openness to discussing changes. She accepted amendments proposed by committee staff, and in the end Frazier signed on as a co-author. That move brought bipartisan support from Assemblymembers on the committee, including Republicans Catharine Baker (R-San Ramon) and Matthew Harper (R-Costa Mesa).

In the end the Assembly Transportation Committee passed it this week on a 13-1 vote, with only Devon Mathis (R-Visalia) voting against it.

It helps that bicycle and pedestrian advocates were joined by what Friedman called “an outpouring of support from local cities.” Los Angeles, Oakland, Berkeley, Watsonville, and Malibu, among others, strongly favored some version of a fix for speed limit issues. Jennifer Cohen of the city of Los Angeles Transportation Department spoke in favor of the bill at yesterday’s hearing, pointing out that LADOT had been forced to raise speed limits on “94 miles of our most dangerous streets” just so they could enforce them. The law required them to do this even though they knew that “speed is undeniably tied to the likelihood and severity of crashes,” she said.

Chair Frazier mentioned a phone call he got from L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti, who, he said, was quite passionate about the issue.

As amended, the bill would not change anything yet. Instead, it would create a statewide Vision Zero task force to develop policies to reduce traffic fatalities. The task force would have four and a half months to report to the legislature—by May 15, 2019—giving legislators time to introduce informed bills by the 2020 session.

The task force’s report would discuss the current process for setting speed limits and how it came to be. It would also make recommendations about alternative methods for setting speed limits and gather information on existing speed-reduction policies and engineering recommendations for increasing traffic safety for all users. It would discuss differences between urban and rural areas, as well as how bicycle and pedestrian plans are affected by the speed limit rules.

The task force is not expected to start from scratch but must gather and incorporate existing studies and analyses on the subject.

While it may not be what Friedman was aiming for, the legislation is a work in progress. A task force can help inform future discussions of the issue, and even if the Governor signs the bill, there will still be work to do.

At the hearing, Friedman said she planned to keep working on the bill’s language. “I never intended this to be a standalone measure,” she said. “Enforcement, engineering, and education are also needed. The goal is to reduce collisions to zero.”

The bill now goes to the Assembly Appropriations Committee, which it must pass by May 18 before it can go to the Senate for consideration.

  • jcwconsult

    In lighter traffic areas, no posted limits would work OK in most cases. In heavier traffic areas, posting the 85th percentile speed will usually lead to the best results. With 85th limits police can concentrate on the truly dangerous drivers — the drunk, the distracted, and the left-lane lollygaggers – because there will not be enough violators far enough above the safest limits for officers to be assigned to collect “road taxes” based on just speed.

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • GRY

    Hi Melanie,
    When a driver pulls in front of car going 20, 40 or 60 mph there WILL be a crash. And at 60 the crash will be worse than at 20 mph. The key point: it is the driver who is pulling into traffic is the cause of the accident.
    Someone going 60, on a road designed for a 60 or 70 mph is not inherently unsafe. 90% of the time, in an accident, the slower car is the one at fault.
    One NHTSA study found that if you are driving slower than the average speed of traffic on a roadway you are 8 times MORE likely to be involved in an accident, than if you are driving at, or above, the average speed.
    I get that it is easy to dislike someone who is driving fast. The problem is, according to multiple state and federal studies, fast does not equal un-safe.

  • Melanie Curry

    http://www.who.int/violence_injury_prevention/publications/road_traffic/world_report/speed_en.pdf

    Whether a police report lists “speed” as the main cause of a crash or not is meaningless. If speed were not a contributing factor at all, crashes would be less likely and less severe, because people would have more time to react, among other reasons.

  • GRY

    “speed is undeniably tied to the likelihood…of crashes” and “research clearly shows that higher speeds reduce safety, and the higher the speed, the less safe for all” are two thoughts that sound good but are just not true.
    Every time these kind of made up “facts” get published they keep the focus off of the real issue, and that is why so many people and groups oppose. Numerous studies have shown that speed is the 7th or 8th likely cause of an accident. Other studies show that speed is the cause of 10-12% of all accidents. Let’s focus on accident causes #1-5, or the reasons for the 88-90% of the crashes and fix those, THAT will make it safer for all.

    If the desire is to make speeds slow enough so that bikes, pedestrians & cars can all share the same lane, then you would need to have a 3 mph speed limit. Separating Bikes, Pedestrians and Autos seems like a better solution.

  • jcwconsult

    2) Put a speed camera every block or two, put CLEAR warning signs before the cameras, and speeds will comply with posted limits. But then the total fines collected are unlikely to pay the roughly $3,000/month/camera costs – so the cameras become a huge cost item in the budget that no city will pay.
    3) Traffic safety researchers count all crash results.
    4) This is the big truth, but cities don’t like the costs and consequences.
    5) In a few cities where there is very good transit and a high percentage of workers and visitors live mostly along the transit lines – the alternate mode travel can be a high percentage. In most cities, it cannot because of distances, housing costs, and poor transit choices.
    6) It is often the case, because most cities are starved for revenue and will take it anywhere they can get it – fairly or not. I live in a city where the highest posted limit on the many city-controlled main roads I have surveyed with Lidar is at the 36th percentile speed. Many are below the 20th percentile and one is at the 1st percentile with 99% defined as violators.

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • jcwconsult

    Maybe I was not clear. Setting posted limits well below the actual 85th percentile speed and/or the design speed (which tend to be in a similar range) does NOT reduce the actual travel speeds enough to make any difference for safety. What it does do is enable for-profit enforcement with either officers or cameras, neither of which is ever used often enough to reduce actual travel speeds by enough to matter – because really blanket enforcement enough to reduce speeds is too expensive with no ticket profits for the budget.

    As shown in another post, engineering can change the actual travel speeds. 4) Example: If the slowest 85% of the drivers now feel safe and comfortable at speeds up to about 35 mph, then engineering changes can be made so 85% then feel safe and comfortable only at speeds up to about 25 mph.

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • xplosneer

    2) because cities are unwilling to move to income-based fines and because of unwarranted political backlash on ticket cameras, not because “it costs too much.”
    3) Fewest accidents for drivers but inherently unsafe to other users, which leads to a reduction in those users from their own logical choices. That is not the same thing as an increase in physical safety.
    4) In the context above, this is true.
    5) The negative consequences of congestion are far outweighed by the increase in alternative mode use. The increase in use of the parallel streets does not often result in an increase in serious accidents as per your own reasoning, they are designed with slower speeds in mind and thus drivers move slower.
    6) This may be true but is not necessarily the case.

  • xplosneer

    The number of accidents is not the relative statistic – the severity is. That study is specific to non-limited-access highways which tend to be highly familiarized to drivers, and is specific to US context, which is extremely resistant to automated enforcement and to income-based traffic fines. Such a method would increase enforcement without the for-profit connotation.

    Even considering that information, you did not rebut me as the posted speed and the design speed are different.

  • jcwconsult

    The principle is quite simple to understand. On nice days when traffic is free flowing under good conditions, authorities measure the speeds of the free flowing vehicles (not those that just entered the flow or are turning out of it – or are otherwise not proceeding at their chosen cruising speeds), and find the speed at or under which you find the slowest 85% of the vehicles. Round that number to the nearest 5 mph interval for the safest speed limit to post that tends to produce the fewest crashes. Example: If the slowest 85% of the vehicles are at or under 38 to 42 mph on a main 4 lane collector or arterial street, you post 40 mph as the limit for the best results. Research over the last 75+ years also shows that the vehicles at or near the actual 85th percentile speed have the lowest risks of being in a crash of any kind. In this example, the vehicles at or near 40 mph have lower risks of being in or causing a crash than the ones at 30 or the very few 50 mph.

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • eBob

    I have often thought that we could just eliminate speed limits on most rural Interstate highways. The police could then concentrate their efforts on the truly dangerous drivers — the drunk, the distracted, and the left-lane lollygaggers.

  • jcwconsult

    If you read some of the traffic safety engineering research on the subject developed over the last 75+ years, you would see what is analyzed is where to put the POSTED LIMIT to achieve the fewest crashes. This is completely different than discussing the travel speeds – because they do not change by enough to matter when posted limits are raised or lowered. The best study of 100 urban and rural locations showed you could raise limits by up to 15 mph or lower them by up to 20 mph — and the maximum change to the actual 85th percentile speed was 3 mph, with the average change of 1.5 mph. http://www.ibiblio.org/rdu/sl-irrel.html

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • xplosneer

    “Any “study” that says higher speeds are less safe are 100% false.”

    Nuhope.

  • Areli Morales

    I encourage you all to come listen to a discussion about how the 85% speed limits work. Thursday may 24th at LACBC headquarters 6th and Spring.

  • jcwconsult

    Most rural Interstates should be posted at 75, 80, or 85 mph – depending on their actual 85th percentile speeds of free flowing traffic under good conditions, rounded to the nearest 5 mph interval. Texas Highway 130 is posted at 85 mph, the highest posted limit in the USA. The actual 85th percentile speed is 86 mph per data from TexDOT. It is a perfect limit and a clear example it is FALSE that “people always drive 5 or 10 over”. Correct limits are respected, artificially low ones are not.

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • This is another bill thinly veiled to allow speed limits to be reduced and therefore more tickets to be written, and more revenue to be generated. Any “study” that says higher speeds are less safe are 100% false.

    it’s time they started focusing on the REAL problem with traffic safety — distracted driving and also certain classes of people simply being unable to drive safely (e.g. the elderly). Speed IS NOT THE PROBLEM.

  • jcwconsult

    Facts (which the pedestrian and cyclist lobbies do not like or accept the known science)
    1) Posted limits do NOT make any significant change in the actual travel speeds.
    2) Most cities will not use enough enforcement with either officers or ticket cameras to materially change actual travel speeds because it costs too much.
    3) 85th percentile posted speed limits are almost always the safest, and they prevent predatory for-profit enforcement of speed traps that no one should tolerate.
    4) Engineering changes are the ONLY effective way to reduce the actual travel speeds by any significant amounts. Example: If the slowest 85% of the drivers now feel safe and comfortable at speeds up to about 35 mph, then engineering changes can be made so 85% then feel safe and comfortable only at speeds up to about 25 mph.
    5) The effective engineering changes may have negative consequences of congestion and diversion of traffic onto smaller roughly-parallel streets that are far less prepared for the higher volumes and speeds of the main arteries that were re-engineered.
    6) Artificially low posted limits set well below the safest 85th percentile levels are often used in for-profit enforcement rackets with most tickets going to safe drivers for the sole purpose of profits. These are larcenous rackets no one should tolerate.

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • Kevin Anderstove
  • Kevin Anderstove

    Raise the speed limit, it is too low!!!

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