Friday, April 17, 2009

CityWatchLA - Speed on LA’s Streets: Who’s in Charge?

CityWatch, Apr 17, 2009
Vol 7 Issue 31

Got a speedy response from Councilman Greig Smith on my CityWatch article on speed limits and speed being a killer. His thoughts:

“I appreciate your concern about speed limit engineering studies. What is missing in your article is that we are REQUIRED by state law to readjust our speed limits every few years to properly reflect the average speed. If that is not done, or if the city CHOOSES to ignore that study, the city MAY NOT use radar on those streets. Considering that the most reliable ticket for speed is done by radar tracking, to not comply means that will be little or no enforcement on those streets. I have been to Sacramento to try and get he law changed for years. The legislature refuses to make changes to the law. I have always argued that this process automatically raises speeds each time you do it, until you reach a level of speed that is the maximum cars can travel on a road, regardless of what is safe.

I don't know if your were unaware of this law, or you purposely over looked it so you can blame the City Council for this, when it is clearly out of our control. Either way I believe a correction is warranted.”

Councilman, 12th District

Councilman Smith is correct when he points out that my article failed to mention the state law addressing the establishment of speed limits and the use of radar/laser speed limit enforcement. The omission was not because I am unaware of the law nor was it because I wanted to blame the City Council for the law but simply because I have written about the law so many times that this time I left it out.

Nevertheless, here is a recap of the relevant "speed trap" law. California State law specifies that in order to use radar/laser speed limit enforcement, the speed limit of a street must be set based on a survey of unobstructed traffic during non-peak hours and the speed limit is to be set at the 85% mark. This speed limit survey is to be conducted every 5-7 years and if the speed limit certification lapses, law enforcement officers can't use radar/laser to enforce the speed limit.

Councilman Smith, in my opinion, is incorrect when he claims "it is clearly out of our control."

This is Los Angeles, the largest City in the most populated State in the most powerful Country in the world. Nothing is out of our control if we work together to make it happen.

1) John Fisher, the Assistant General Manager of the Department of Transportation, sits on the California Traffic Control Devices Committee which has been reviewing the "speed trap" law and the conditions for surveying and establishing speed limits. Communities throughout the state have expressed their frustration with the status quo. Is the City of Los Angeles doing all it can to encourage Fisher to fight for change?

2) Councilman Dennis Zine recently introduced a City Council Resolution calling for a revision to the "speed trap" law and the City Council approved it. Was this a simple gesture to appease community activists opposed to the recent wave of speed limit increases or was this the battle cry of a City Council prepared to fight for a change to State Law?

3) Assemblyman Paul Krekorian has introduced the "Safe Streets Bill" (AB776) that will allow local governments, through a public process, to consider pedestrian safety when reviewing local speed limits, not just the rising speed of passing motorists. Has the City Council taken a position on the "Safe Streets Bill" and are we prepared to go to Sacramento to support Krekorian?

4) While Fisher works the CTCD committee for changes and Zine takes that resolution on the road and Krekorian fights in the Assembly, the City of Los Angeles has a full tool-box of engineering solutions at its disposal including bulb-outs, road diets, refuge islands and other traffic calming devices that would put safety first.

The brutal reality is this, we are in the midst of a crisis. Our streets are crowded, our streets are dangerous and they're getting faster and faster, not safer. The presumption that motorists will drive at a prevailing speed that is safe is simply flawed. That speed may feel safe for the motorist safely inside a vehicle engineered for speed but that doesn't take into account the more vulnerable pedestrian or cyclist on the street.

The City of Los Angeles maintains speed limit certification on 700 street segments. Some of these surveys have been expired for years and some of the surveys rely on old data collected long ago. Why the rush to increase the speed limits when we have so many opportunities to work together to make our streets safer for everybody.

I spoke to Councilman Smith and he indicated that he has lobbied and testified in Sacramento in an effort to have the "speed trap" law revised so that local authorities have more control of their streets. He went so far as to call it "a stupid law" and said he is willing to continue the battle.

In response to my suggestion for traffic calming measures, he acknowledged that our streets are engineered for speed but countered that he thinks more law enforcement is the best opportunity to make our streets safer for everybody. He added that there is a real need for education, "especially in our multi-cultural environment with so many interpretations of the rules of the road."

He concluded our conversation by pitching another solution to the current crisis on the streets and that is to simply combine the City's grants programs under one Grants Department so that we can go after law enforcement money, education money, engineering money and do it effectively and efficiently. Currently each City Department conducts their own grants programs, some effectively and some ineffectively, but ultimately resulting in the City falling far short of our "Fair Share."

The opportunity is ours. I'm calling for a moratorium on speed limit increases. It's time for us to decide if we're going to work together to make Los Angeles the City of Great Streets or if we're going to continue to let people die in our crosswalks. It's our call. (Stephen Box is a transportation and cyclist advocate and is a CityWatch contributor. He can be reached at

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