Catch-45: Outdated Traffic Laws Ensnare Los Angeles In a Speed Trap of Its Own Making

If you’ve ever driven through Los Angeles and found yourself wondering if all the speed limit signs were abruptly raptured when you weren’t looking, you would not be alone. It’s a strange, off-kilter experience — even more so once you realize you have no idea how fast you should be going.

Have you ever asked yourself why? Sometimes you can go entire city blocks before seeing a posted limit — only to spot its accusatory, black-on-white lettering just in time to blow past a cop doing 50 in a 40. Picture it:  your eyes darting anxiously to your rearview mirror, ears primed for a siren’s scolding. You wait with bated breath, and…

…no one follows. “Perhaps the officer didn’t notice,” you think. While it’s certainly possible (cops are only human, after all), for over 200 miles of Los Angeles roadways — unless you’ve recently brushed up on your arcane California law — any explanation you could come up with would likely be wrong.

It’s the result of a simpler, more naive time. When radar guns were first introduced five decades ago, there was a hullabaloo over whether California cities might abuse the new technology. By arbitrarily lowering speed limits below that of the natural flow of traffic, officers would be able to the pick off speeders (read:  everybody, ever) one-by-one. Money-hungry jurisdictions would be laughing all the way to the bank. Or at least that’s what people feared.

In response to these concerns, lawmakers devised a kind check on the system:  speed limits were to be based on driver speeds, and regularly updated.

It was the perfect solution. (Right up until it wasn’t.)

It’s a catch-22 to make Joseph Heller proud. The way the law is written, if a speed limit is too low, or if it’s out of date, then the police aren’t allowed to use electronic devices such as radar guns to clock speeders.

For a few decades this wasn’t really an issue, but when the Great Recession rolled into town the Transportation Department’s survey group lost 70% of its workforce. To keep speed limits up to date on LA’s more than 1,200 miles of paved roads, they needed to survey at least 200 miles per year. That quickly became a logistical impossibility, and over the next few years thousands of speed limits quietly expired.

In 2010 the LAPD issued 99,333 speeding tickets. By 2017, citations had tumbled a colossal 77% to only 22,783 annually issued tickets. “Traffic officers have been particularly hamstrung in the San Fernando Valley,” writes Laura J. Nelson for the Los Angeles Times, “where the majority of the city’s speeding tickets are written and more than 130 miles of streets carry speed enforcement restrictions.”

Chandler and Balboa Boulevards, both highly-trafficked corridors haven’t seen speed enforcement in years. Emboldened by the lack of consequences, drivers have become accustomed to speeding, which has raised the overall flow of traffic over time. Since resuming surveys, the Transportation Department has worked frantically to renew the speed limits on more than 650 miles of roads in the past two years alone.

Laura Nelson explains the process in her piece about the issue:

“To update driver speeds, city engineers visit a street in the late morning or early afternoon, park along a stretch of road without stop signs or traffic lights, and use an electronic device to measure the speeds of 100 drivers.

They rank the speeds from fastest to slowest and identify the 85th percentile — that is, the speed just below the 15th-fastest driver. City engineers use that “critical speed” as a basis for establishing a new speed limit, typically rounded to the nearest 5 mph.. The mandate means that if cities want to enforce the speed limit on a street where drivers routinely put the pedal to the metal, they often have to raise the speed limit.”

For some, this seems tantamount to allowing the monkeys to run the zoo. The people driving like maniacs are throwing off the curve.

It’s long been understood that speed kills, and the physics backs that up. A pedestrian hit by a vehicle moving at 40 mph has only a 10% chance of survival. Cut that speed in half, and a pedestrian’s chance of survival jumps to 80%. The math is cut and dry:  lowering speed saves lives. But, lower speeds mean officers can’t issue tickets.

Nowhere is this catch-22 more apparent than Zelzah Avenue. Since 2009 its speed limit has been raised twice:  first from 35 to 40, and then a few years later to 45. Both times, it was to match the “critical speed” of the drivers surveyed. Local residents find it nothing short of mind-boggling, considering Zalzah’s reputation:  with 13 traffic accidents involved pedestrians and cyclists in the past three years, the two mile stretch past UCLA Northridge is one of the most dangerous roads in the city.

Officials understand the public’s concern, but say they have no choice but to raise speed limits. It’s either that, or lose the ability to ticket the worst offenders. In the interest of public safety, Zelzah — and other roads that considered “the most dangerous for bicyclists and pedestrians” — was among the first studied once surveying resumed. Now, officers are able to issue speeding citations on more than 95% of those streets, compared to just 20% in 2016.

The Los Angeles Times tried to find out which roads still have out of date speed limits earlier this year, citing the California Public Records Act, but they weren’t allowed access to the information. The denial makes sense. By letting drivers know where they can speed with impunity, traffic deaths only stand to increase — and already, that number is far too high.

In time, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti wants to see that number down to zero. It’s an initiative that has found success in Europe — Vision Zero. Zero traffic deaths on city streets by the 2025.

With speed limits on the rise, maniacs ruling the street, and corrective bills stalling in the California legislature, it’s a goal that seems increasingly out of reach.

During the first two years of Vision Zero, traffic deaths rose by 82%.


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Check Out These References for Further Reading:

“As L.A. struggles to reduce traffic deaths, speed limits keep going up.” Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 15 August 2018.

“Speed kills. California’s outdated laws make it too hard to slow cars down and save lives.” Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 15 August 2018.

“What is Vision Zero?” Vision Zero Network. Retrieved 16 August 2018.

“Stop! In the Name of Life.” Howard Blau Law. Retrieved 17 August 2018.

“Traffic Deaths on the Rise in SoCal.” Howard Blau Law. Retrieved 17 August 2018.

“Caltrans Has A Killing Problem (And Fixing Our Roads Would Solve It).” Howard Blau Law. Retrieved 17 August 2018.

2019-02-01T16:01:34-08:00August 17th, 2018|California Driver, Cars, Los Angeles, Safe Driving|0 Comments