Zero Traffic Fatalities Task Force Holds First Meeting

Revisiting the way California sets speed limits as called for by last year's A.B. 2363

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An outdated, Orwellian California law requires speed limits to be set according to how fast people drive. That’s no typo: the current method for setting speed limits on California streets–in your neighborhood–is not according to what is safe, but, by law, according to the behavior of random drivers seatbelted and airbagged safely within a steel cage. If many scofflaw drivers drive dangerously fast, then municipalities are required to raise limits, resulting in a vicious cycle where more and more drivers speed and streets become more and more deadly.

“Speed limit determinations rely on the premise that a reasonable speed limit is one that conforms to the actual behavior of the majority of drivers,” according to the California Manual for Setting Speed Limits. “One will be able to select a speed limit that is both reasonable and effective by measuring drivers’ speeds.”

“Speed limits… are normally set near the 85th percentile speed, [which is] the speed at or below which 85 percent of the traffic is moving, and statistically represents one standard deviation above the average speed.”

That’s a little like setting a teenager’s curfew based on when teenagers usually come home–and makes some equally big assumptions about reasonable behavior.

And it makes no sense to people outside of cars. For example, say, people walking along Balboa Blvd in Los Angeles’ Granada Hills neighborhood. The speed limit on this arterial, lined by houses and strip malls and shopping centers of various sizes, was raised to 40 mph because that’s how fast about 85 percent of the people drive. Long stretches of the street have no parking, to allow more traffic to pass, so there is no buffer between pedestrians and speeding drivers.

The excessive speed also makes little sense to drivers trying to pull out of driveways and side roads onto arterials like Balboa.

Speed limits are, of course, not a solution by themselves to the safety issues that come with speeding. Designers and engineers need to build streets that cue drivers to maintain safer speeds. Speed limits also require enforcement. This is problematic in several ways, as most California cities lack resources for significant traffic violations enforcement, and when enforcement is used, profiling often means adverse impacts on people of color.

The state has long been afraid that cities will create speed traps to make money off innocent drivers. To prevent this, California forces municipalities to measure existing traffic speed before they can set any speed limit. Because of the 85th percentile rule, some cities have had to raise speed limits on local streets just to be able to enforce any speed limits at all.

Road conditions or other safety concerns are not included in this equation, and the notion that a city, or Caltrans, might actually try to design a road to force drivers to slow down is taking a very long time for engineers to accept. Instead, “safety” has dictated designing roads, even residential arterials like the above-mentioned Balboa Blvd, to be ever faster, with wide lanes, wide intersections, and signals set to keep traffic moving.

But that doesn’t equate to an increase in safety. It’s a Catch-22 of epic proportions.

Last year, Assemblymember Laura Friedman was able to pass – and get Governor Brown to sign – a bill that addresses this–albeit indirectly. A.B. 2363 set out to adjust this 85th percentile rule, but it got so much opposition from (checks notes) the CHP, AAA Auto Club, and the Teamsters, that in the end it was reduced to calling for a task force to study the issue.

That task force was required to meet “on or before” July 1, 2019, which is today! It met that deadline, holding its first meeting last week.

The Zero Traffic Fatalities Task Force force is huge–25 people were invited to participate–and it has a lot to do in a short time. It will meet a total of four times, and has until January to produce a report, as required by A.B. 2363. The task force is also supposed to “develop a structured, coordinated process for early engagement of all parties to develop policies to reduce traffic fatalities to zero.”

The task force is specifically required to discuss: the existing process for establishing speed limits, policies for reducing speeds, engineering recommendations on increasing safety and speed, and how bike and pedestrian plans affect the current 85th percentile method. It is also supposed to make “a recommendation as to whether an alternative to the use of the 85th percentile… should be considered, and if so, what alternatives should be looked at.”

So many engineers have been using the 85th percentile method to set speeds for so many years that it is hard for them to fathom why or how it would be changed–hence the mealy-mouthed phrasing of that last task. For some, there is no doubt that allowing drivers to determine “reasonable speeds” is a bad way to go about keeping Californians safe. Others cling to the standard engineer-speak because, as the manual claims, “Speed limits that are set near the 85th percentile speed of free flowing traffic are safer and produce less variance in vehicle speeds.”

A.B. 2363 called for some specific organizations to participate in the Task Force, including the CHP, researchers from UC Berkeley’s SafeTREC, Caltrans, and the Department of Public Health. There are also representatives from local governments, and bike and walk advocates. Also AAA Auto Club, the Teamsters, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation. And at least one person whose presence is a real head-scratcher: Jay Beeber, who misleadingly calls himself “Safe Streets L.A.” while campaigning against road diets and bus improvements.

The meetings are not open to the public, and their discussions are not available for listening in on. Several attendees Streetsblog spoke to mentioned that the first day-long meeting was mostly introductory, with a general discussion to define the issues and begin recommending solutions.

Cyclist Meghan Sahli-Wells, Culver City mayor and representative of the Southern California Association of Governments, said the first meeting was “a good start in getting to know the key concepts about current traffic engineering, the 85th percentile rule, and the unconscionable amount of traffic fatalities we experience under this system.”

“We got a copy of the 2014 California Manual for Setting Speed Limits [PDF], which describes this approach,” she wrote in an email. “When I read [the passage about speed limit setting relying on driver behavior], my blood boils, because it is so deeply flawed, with deadly results,” she wrote.

Tossing around ideas about a better way to set speed limits in California
Tossing around ideas about a better way to set speed limits in California

On the other hand, the manual does make a few reasonable points. For example, “the setting of speed limits requires a rational and defensible procedure to maintain the confidence of the public and legal systems” are wise words–although perhaps not supported by the 85th percentile method.

And this: “Regardless of the posted speed limit, the majority of drivers will continue to drive at speeds at which they feel comfortable. The question then arises, ‘Why do we even need to post speed limit signs?'” This is hard to argue with, in the face of a lack of enforcement and the current illegality of automated enforcement in California–which is why design is so important. For too many years streets have been designed for more cars to drive faster–see Balboa Blvd, again, as one of many examples. That street is a traffic sewer and yet many people live on it and even more try to navigate through and across it. No wonder so few people walk and bike there.

The manual also points out that other factors affect driver speed, perhaps more than whatever speed limit is set, including the design and physical characteristics of the roadway, the vehicle, the driver, what the traffic is like, weather and visibility, and–last, perhaps least?–other users on the road, like people walking, waiting for transit, riding a bike, trying to cross the street, etc.

A brainstorming white board tweeted out by Sahli-Wells gives a hint at some of the ideas being discussed, but with one meeting down and three to go, it’s hard to know what direction the conversation will take. The Zero Traffic Fatalities Task Force includes fierce advocates for the safety of all road users, but it also includes participants who are more concerned with freedom from speeding tickets, economics, and privacy than they are with safety.

Stay tuned.

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22 thoughts on Zero Traffic Fatalities Task Force Holds First Meeting

  1. “Regardless of the posted speed limit, the majority of drivers will continue to drive at speeds at which they feel comfortable.”

    Sorry but that’s a ridiculous comment. The majority of drivers, sadly, have zero regard for the safety and comfort of pedestrians and cyclists–or they at least fail to realize that their speeding causes fewer pedestrians and cyclists to exist in the first place. So, they may “feel comfortable” driving at reckless speeds, but their actions are nonetheless working against the public good.

    My other response to that comment is that in California, drivers speed above the limit on a regular basis only because they know there is practically no enforcement at all, and when there is it only hurts working class people since fines aren’t based on income/wealth.

    It is time to stop the madness. We need to reduce speed limits nearly everywhere and increase automated enforcement, with income-based fines. Police should also be ticketing anything over 1 MPH beyond the limit. That’s the short-term inexpensive stuff. Over the next several years, we also of course need to re-engineer many of our streets — the other leg of Vision Zero.

  2. Update with new information: It actually IS the law. It was added to CVC 21400 around 2011, 2012. Or at any rate, the law directs Caltrans to put it in the MUTCD to “require” speeds to be set that way.

  3. Chris, thank you again for pointing out the need for transparency. I sent this to Disgus:
    In my opinion, several of the topics, e.g. red light cameras, Vision Zero, should be sponsored by the lead activity on a website dedicated to the topic. Similar to the CA SB 901 catastrophic wildfires. Disgus reminds me of Dewey Beats Truman headlines. Pollsters using telephones did not recognize that only rich people had phones in the mid and late forties. Some publicly formed task forces seem to bypass transparency law, such as California’s Brown Act or Begley Keene. I would think Disqus would review hosting red ight camera or vision zero discussions and ask if Disqus really satisfies public disclosure. The legal term is constructive notice. Don’t tell me you told me unless you told me in a manner to which I have access and know that I should be accessing. And in a manner that is tested for understanding.

    and the sponsors of the Streetsblog Vision Zero, GJEL Accident Attorneys

  4. I sent this to Assemblyman Cooley and Senator Dahle.

    AB 2363 created a Vision Zero Fatalities Task Force

    I believe the task force can better serve the public if the task force established public discussion patterned after SB 901 Catastrophic Fires discussion. As practiced in the Office of Planning and Research. I don’t believe OPR is the correct agency to lead Vision Zero Fatalities Task Force.

    Simply creating a task force and a line of communication will not, in my opinion, meet the goal of zero fatalities. I believe the task force should be headed by Public Health, not Transportation. In my opinion, Transportation will perpetuate the status quo and discourage creative thinking.

    AB 2363 does call for participation by academia. But from what I observe, the task force does not address education. Education directed at educating drivers, pedestrians, bicyclists on what can be, not a continuation of what we have. I believe the task force should be encouraged to solicit comments from the public. Requests for comments which are more than the constructive notice lip service that I see.

    Finances would be a major part of the Vision Zero discussion. Identification of external costs. Developing cost benefit models. Developing investment guidelines. Developing education goals. Identifying funds for effort by the government entity doing the work.

    Consideration of lessons learned in other countries and other states.

    Thank you for your continued dedication to public service.

    Richard Boyd
    2140 Gold Coin Ct
    Gold River, CA 95670

  5. Thank you, Chris
    Does indeed require what you say. Public meetings. Thank you for pointing out the Government Code Section on meetings.
    I’m not all that comfortable about using Disqus and STreetblogs as the means of communication for Vision Zero panel discussion. I will send an email to my Assemblyman requesting the Vision Zero follow the example of the Catastrophic Fires SB 901 commission.
    What else can you recommend to get the Vision Zero discussion out in the open? My email is should you decide to communicate directly. But there are benefits to keeping our discussion on StreetBlogs/Disqus.

  6. I read AB 2363 before writing my original post. It is silent about whether the task force meetings may be private. I disagree with your interpretation of the Begley-Keene Act. It requires meetings of multi-member state bodies created by statute (with various exceptions that aren’t applicable here) to be public. (See Gov. Code sections 11121, 11123.) It is not limited to elected bodies. Given that the task force is a state multi-member body created by statute, it appears the Bagley-Keene Open Meeting Act applies absent some exception of which I’m unaware. AB 2363 does not provide such an exemption.

  7. Agreed. This is in the basket called a pig don’t know a pig stinks.
    CHP, AAA and others have blinders in my opinion. They seem to have the attitude that they already know everything there is to know, so don’t bother them with any other ideas. Mandatory driver education? Roundabouts? Internalized crash cost? When pigs fly. OK, enough pig bashing already.

  8. In my opinion, it is not the majority of drivers who drives at speeds at which they feel comfortable. It is EVERY driver that drives at a speed which they feel comfortable. Where is the education element that explains how the other driver selects a speed? Dr. Nestor, anyone?

  9. Agreed. But does AB 2363 require public meetings? Please read AB 2363 before answering. Here is a link:
    Compare AB 2363 to SB 901 regarding public meetings and schedules.
    Or compare the “not open to the public” to a County Grand Jury. Some “task forces” are directed to hold public meetings, some task forces were created with no particular mention of public meetings. In either case, the task force is not an elected part of the state government, so is not subject to Begley Keene. or subject to county/city government Brown act. My personal observation is that the media misleads the public in regard to how people agree to govern themselves. I would like to see the task force ask for public input. Formally.


    Links to a 59 page report from Federal Highway. I recommend the commission read this. Also, Mr. Beeber has a different point of view. So listen to what he has to say. Indy racers and F1 racers survive crashes at greater than 200 MPH. But race cars are designed for safety as well as speed. For the commission, please learn the part about statistics that explains mean and standard deviations. Using only the parameter of mean speed while ignoring variation/deviation is a trap. Difference in speed is the killer. Attempt to get cars moving in the same direction move at the same speed. No Dr. Nestors. OK, I don’t expect very many will read this. let alone the commission, but I tried.

  11. Human Factors HFAC is an engineering discipline.
    The 85th percentile HFAC needs to be re evaluated, in my opinion. Quoting a one sigma number? What is the maximum observed speed? What is the distribution of speeds?
    What was the speed of observed and investigated crashes? No, not the typical fill in the blanks police and insurance crash report. Where did the 85 come from? And when?
    Yes, people will drive at a speed which they think is safe. But many drive at a speed which they feel is safe. For people with strong feelings, thinking is optional. If the road was not built with HFAC, expect crashes. What to do? What do the crash reports say? Speed at impact for pedestrians greater than 20 MPH,? Speed at impact for vehicles greater than 40 MPH for unbelted? I don’t know the number for belted. So speed becomes the focus. What about the design of the road. What clues are built in to control excess speed? Roundabouts? What is excess anyway? Should 40 MPH be the limit to accommodate those who refuse to buckle up? Gentle curves?

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  14. What if the 85th percentile rule were modified to include all street users, not just those in motor vehicles? Wouldn’t that have the effect of lowering speed limits, and lowering them even more in places with more people walking, biking, and using scooters?

  15. Thanks for this clarification! It’s true that the threat of liability only FEELS like the force of law

  16. …as pedestrian groups and bike groups, etc. Those most vulnerable should have more representatives than that guy!

  17. “Regardless of the posted speed limit, the majority of drivers will continue to drive at speeds at which they feel comfortable.”

    If drivers ignore the speed limit and drive at the speed that makes them feel comfortable, rather than the speed that is safe, we clearly need something like this new European regulation:

    The European Commission in late March approved a rule to make
    Intelligent Speed Assistance (ISA) mandatory for all newly manufactured
    light vehicles starting in 2022. Legislators said the technology could
    save thousands of lives and, combined with other mandated new
    active-safety features, reduce collisions by 30%. The ISA system—already fitted to vehicles from many brands in Europe—has been widely called a speed-limiting device, but it does not limit maximum speed; ISA is designed to work much like cruise control to
    prevent the vehicle from traveling in excess of the posted speed limit,
    but the driver can elect to temporarily override the speed-limiting

    We were recently driving with someone in Europe, and his car did not have ISA but did have a device that used GPS to determine the speed limit and that beeped when he exceeded the speed limit. He drove at actual speed limit, slowing down when it beeped – not like the United States, where speed cameras let you go 10 mph beyond the speed limit.

  18. Thank you. Small clarification. The 85th percentile is NOT law. The manual does not have the force of law. The idea actually comes from court case law, that stated speeding tickets would be dismissed if the agency had not followed the 85th procedure. Caltrans, rather than labeling this as crazy talk and resisting, went all in with the idea because it fit their view of roads as being primarily, if not solely, for motor vehicles. Just think about all the people who have died and will die between when Friedman introduced the bill, and the report, and legislation to change the practice. AAA and CHP are the anti-safety agents in all of this.

  19. I don’t understand why the task force’s meetings aren’t open to the public. The Bagley-Keene Open Meeting Act requires any “multimember body of the state that is created by statute” to meet in public and to allow members of the public to comment on agenda items.

  20. Why on god’s green earth is Jay Beeber on this committee? 25 representatives from across the entire state, and that nimwit gets as much of a voice as Caltrans? As CHP?

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