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Transportation and Mobility

LA Leaders Want To Lower Speed Limits. This State Bill Would Make It Possible

A speed feedback sign shows a driver was going 57 miles per hour on a street with a speed limit of 35 miles per hour.
(Courtesy LAPD South Traffic Division
/
via Twitter )
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Speed kills, and Los Angeles has a speed problem. Even with fewer cars on the road last year, the number of people killed in car crashes remained high, and the rate of serious and fatal collisions actually increased on city streets.

L.A. isn’t alone. Nationwide, the total number of people killed in car crashes and the death rate in 2020 exceeded 2019, according to estimates from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Speeding is one of the primary behaviors that make crashes deadly.

Research shows reducing vehicle speeds is key to saving lives. One way to do that is to lower speed limits, which several U.S. cities have done in recent years with positive results.

But in L.A. and the rest of California, speed limits are regularly raised in order to be enforceable. That’s because of a state rule traffic engineers use to determine how fast people should be allowed to drive.

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Here’s a quick summary of how the method, called the 85th percentile rule, is used:

Traffic engineers survey roads about every 10 years and analyze vehicle speeds to determine if the speed limit should be amended (excluding school zones, residential streets and other roads with state-mandated speeds). The 85th percentile rule dictates that the speed limit should be whatever speed 15% of drivers exceed, rounded to the nearest interval of five. So, if a posted speed limit is 35 mph but a traffic survey shows that 15% of drivers are going 42 mph or faster, the new speed limit for that road would be 40 mph.

As you might have guessed, that's led to speed limits regularly rising on our streets, including on roadways already known to be dangerous . At the same time, the number of people killed by drivers has increased in recent years, even as the city launched an initiative to reduce traffic deaths. Clearly, it's not going well.

A growing number of city officials, safety experts and community advocates want the rule abolished, saying it’s virtually impossible to reduce traffic violence — caused in many cases by speeding drivers — by allowing speeds to increase on city streets.

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A national coalition of transportation experts even called out L.A. specifically in a 2020 report as an example of what not to do if the goal is reducing traffic deaths. The report stated:

“Relying on a percentile-based system focused on current driver behavior, rather than a defined safety target to set speed limits, significantly limits cities’ ability to reduce traffic deaths.”

In a unanimous vote this week, the L.A. City Council approved a resolution to support Assembly Bill 43, which would give local governments more flexibility to set speed limits based on safety outcomes, rather than on how fast drivers choose to go.

5659144073_73ffdb47d7_z.jpg
A speed limit sign in Los Angeles.
(Courtesy Chad Elliott
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Flickr Creative Commons)

"It is common sense that increasing speed limits through residential areas increases the chances of fatal [crashes] and yet state laws are tying my hands, forcing speed limit increases in my district in order to qualify for radar enforcement,” said Councilmember Paul Koretz, who introduced the resolution. “If this sounds counterintuitive and counterproductive, that is because it is. This is a ridiculous choice we are being forced to make that impedes public safety either way we go.”

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AB 43, co-authored by Assemblymember Laura Friedman (D-Glendale), would change several aspects of speed setting and enforcement, including:

  • Allowing local governments to lower speed limits by 5 mph below a traffic engineer's recommendation if the portion of the street is identified as a high-injury street, or near places where pedestrians and bicyclists congregate, which can include “vulnerable groups such as children, seniors, persons with disability, and the unhoused.”
  • Allowing speed limits to stay the same or revert to a previous, lower speed on streets where safety upgrades have not been added as part of a previous traffic survey.
  • Allowing cities to set a standard speed limit of 20-25 mph in business activity districts.
  • Allowing law enforcement to use radar guns to enforce speed limits in senior zones or business activity districts without the justification of a traffic survey.
  • Extending the period of time that an engineering and traffic survey justifies a speed from 10 to 14 years if a traffic engineer evaluates that section of the street and determines that no significant changes in roadway or traffic conditions have occurred.
  • Expanding which streets are eligible for school zone speed limits.

“We’re seeing traffic fatalities continue to soar, despite Americans driving less,” Friedman said in a statement, adding:

“Our cities really are the ones on the frontlines of this epidemic, and they’ve been asking for the ability to reform our antiquated way of setting speed limits for years. It’s our job at the state to facilitate that and give them the tools they need to make our streets safer. I couldn’t be happier to be partnering with cities, such as Los Angeles, to finally get this critical work done.”

AB 43 is set to go before the Senate Transportation Committee on July 13.

The Newsom administration “has signaled that this bill is a priority,” said Friedman spokesperson Blake Dellinger.

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“We’re getting more hopeful with its chances should it pass the Senate — though it’s not without opposition in the legislature, so we will need all the help we can get from cities,” he said.

I reported in-depth on the 85th percentile rule and the growing push to end its use in California. There’s also momentum behind ideas to limit armed law enforcement’s role in traffic safety in favor of self-enforcing streets and automated enforcement (aka speed cameras). You can read more about those ideas below: