City Plans to Raise Speed Limits for Valley in the Midst of Deadly Year for Pedestrians

4_7_09_valley.jpgAerial View of the Valley via cocoi_m/flickr

Last month, the L.A. Daily News reported that so far, 2009 was shaping up to be a far deadlier year for pedestrians living in the Valley than last year.  Just last week, after a particularly brutal week for pedestrians, I wondered what exactly was Los Angeles’ plan for making the streets safer for pedestrians.

Today, we have our answer.  The LADOT, LAPD and City Council are poised to raise speed limits on four streets all located in the Valley.  On the list of streets to be "improved" with faster limits are De Soto Avenue between the Ronald Reagan Freeway aka State Route 118 and Ventura Boulevard, Victory Boulevard between the San Diego Freeway and Shoup Avenue, Balboa Boulevard between Foothill Boulevard and Ventura Boulevard, and Zelzah Avenue between Rinaldi Street and Nordhoff Street.  A full list of tomorrow’s agenda can be found here.

The LADOT and LAPD have conspired to raise the limits on these streets because of a state law that requires that the speed limit be set at the 85th percentile of traffic every couple of years for the police to be able to use radar.  What has been left unexplained is why so many people are speeding on these roads if the police are using rader currently.  Unless limits are being enforced, people will continue to speed no matter what the limit and the limit will rise every couple of years.

Of course, LADOT Assistant General Manager John Fisher has also told the City Council that even if that state law didn’t exist the DOT would be asking the city to raise the limits.  Why they sometimes pretend to be powerless because of state law and sometimes say the law is irrelevant when there are speed limits to be raised is beyond me.

Maybe some of these streets sound familiar to regular readers of websites such as City Watch or Streetsblog, it’s because this isn’t the first time they’ve been brought up for speed limit increases.

Our friend Stephen Box has written extensively about the deadly design of Zelzah Avenue and effort of the community to make it safer.  From the effort to get a crosswalk placed in front of Granada High School since a student was struck there over six years ago to the community’s last ditch effort to stop the limit from being raised last fall.  Now the a limit raise on the road is back on the agenda.  It will be interesting to see if the community has gotten on board with the limit raise of if the LAPD and LADOT are going to move forward with the proposal regardless.

It should also be noted that recently, a 60 year old pedestrian was killed in a crosswalk along Zelzah Avenue, when a truck made a right and slammed into her.

As for the proposed change at Victory Boulevard between the 405 and Shoup, this is a stretch of road I know well.  You see, my brother happens to live at the corner of Victory and Shoup and not once have I heard a complaint that traffic us just moving too darn slow.  I have heard complaints that vehicles get rear-ended on Shoup Boulevard because of a lack of a left hand turn signal and because traffic is often moving too fast and too close to the car in front of them when the lead car slows to make it’s left.

I have to admit to not being an expert on the other two routes, but if a Streetblogger wants to help fill me in, the comments section is open.

  • What does it take to change the prime directive at the LADOT?

    I am all for disbanding the entire department. With the reduced overhead (no adminstrators, no more HR people) we could buy more cops, or fill more potholes, or whatever.

    The LADOT has a bunch of grant writing people and it also has engineers. Send these folks over to the planning department and the Public Works Dept. respectively. The planning staff now have professional engineers at their beck and call, and don’t need to fight middle management that loves fast vehicle speeds for no god damn reason other than it looks good on their quarterly reports.

    They also have meter maids – this is easy – the LAPD or General Services get this racket.

    The ATSAC (traffic lights) people also go to Public Works.

    The buses get put into General Services or Public Works as an Office-level or Division-level entity, and what else is left to take care of other than telling all the middle management and “Level Of Service” loving nutjobs to hit the frickin’ bricks. This might be hard for them since most of them likely cruise to work in air conditioned city-owned vehicles sipping on free Sparkletts water.

    Cutting out the overhead on this department would save a quarter of billion dollars ($250 million), and we would be able to deal with agencies that at least give the community a chance to give their ideas on projects before spending millions in staff time and resources.

  • Tom Rubin

    The State statute referenced, which is similar to those in many other states, is soundly based on decades of research — which shows that, in most cases, to reduce safety incidents (collisions, injuries, deaths), set speed limits at the 85th percentile of the unrestricted flow travel speed. In other words, set the speed limits so that 85% of the vehicles are traveling at or below the speed limit.
    So we are clear, this is for well-maintened roads during normal weather conditions. During peak hours, of course, traffic conditions will often mean that travel at anything close to the speed limits is not possible. There are exceptions that are well-recongnized in the professional literature for such things as inadequate lines of sight and large numbers of entrance and exit points along the road — although some of these tend to be self-correcting.
    People who propose “safer” lower speed limits generally fail to understand that the vast majority of people on the roads automatically travel at speeds that are safe — and that many speed limits are set so improperly low that people ignore them because they know that they are wrong. This, in turn, promotes unsafe behavior because people know that the speed limit laws are wrong, so why should they pay attention to other laws?
    One key factor in road safety is consistency of speed for all vehicles. When you have a small number of drivers that are actually obeying the speed limits when the vast majority are not, this creates a higher level of danger to the population of drivers as a whole.
    There are many examples of how properly increasing speed limits that were set too low produces IMPROVED road safety — and even some that show that increasing the speed limit on certain roads produced a reduction in average speed of travel.
    It is common to find speed limits set at the 30th percentile or even lower. My own surveys on I-5 in the Central Valley shows that the 70 mph speed limit common there is lower than the tenth percentile. Ask yourself this question — if 70%, 80%, or 90% of the people are breaking the law, are these people wrong, or is the law in need of change?
    Post “safe” speed limits — those that comply with how people actually drive — and free up scarce police resources to tackle REAL traffic safety issues — which should include those that are driving too SLOW for the road conditions.

  • Stats Dude

    Tom, that is an interesting argument. However, the California Vehicle code you refer to (CVC 40802) regards enforcement and “speed traps”, not safety.

    You also reference Interstate 5, in the central valley. As an interstate, no pedestrians are allowed. Also, I-5 in that area is very straight, with excellent visibility (except for fog and sandstorms).

    What I-5 doesn’t have are numerous intersections with stop signs and stop lights, bicycles and pedestrians trying to use the same facilities. What I-5 also has is a police force (CHP) dedicated to road safety. If there were no CHP, what would the average speed on I-5 be. I know there are studies showing just the appearance of a CHP car slows traffic.

    With the manpower limitations of the LAPD, is their focus on speeding citations on local streets or is it stopping the armed robbery at the 7-11? How many speeding citations would you say were issued on DeSoto Ave in the past few years? I am willing to bet few, if any, and only after an accident.

    Without enforcement, people could easily do 60 or 70 miles per hour if the traffic signals are synchronized and those pesky pedestrians, bicyclists and children don’t get in the way.

    Unfortunately, people do cross the street. Bicyclists do have a right to use the roadway. Automobile stop time is reduced at higher speeds due to inertia and driver reaction time. All this spells bad news to the bicyclist or pedestrian.

    You are comparing apples (freeways) to oranges (arterials). Yes, people automatically drive at speeds they consider safe. That is why 90 pedestrians were killed in the city of Los Angeles in 2007, one third of all traffic fatalities (273) in the city that year. Over 2,800 were injured. (It’s also why we have 70 car pile-ups on I-5 when the fog rolls in).

    I am sure the drivers of those cars thought they were going a safe speed also.

  • Tom,

    The “safety” you are referring to – does it include pedestrian and cyclist safety?

    Having done a small of bit of research looking for studies (in the U.S.) on this particular matter, I have a feeling that when you type “safety” what you really mean is “safety for people in cars driving too fast”.

    Our roads are engineered to hold traffic moving at 15 mph above the posted speed limit – so I wonder why it “feels wrong” to drive the speed limit in the first place … could it be because the road is designed for over-the-limit speeding in the name of “safety”?

    You seem to be stuck in the maddening circle of 20th century western transportation engineering reasoning.

  • Tom Rubin

    Yes, the specific statute does reference the 85th percentile study as a requirement for enforcement, but the reason that this requirement is there is that setting speed limits under the 85th percentile is well proven by research to be a move AGAINST safety.

    It is also correct to differenciate freeways, such as the Central Valley I-5 reference I made, from surface streets; there are obvious differences. However, again, the research shows similar results — if you want to have the safest travel conditions, go for uniformity of speed, and the best methodology has been shown to be the 85th percentile rule, properly applied by knowledgable professionals.

    I most certainly agree that there are very significant problems with pedestrian safety, in the Valley and elsewhere. However, those that believe that an effective methodology for improving pedestrian safety would be to maintain and/or reduce speed limits to well below the 85th percentile and then strictly enforce will find, as has been found previously, that this simply does not work, even if it is possible to implement. Right now, given the number of law enforcement officers in this region, particularly the City, it is simply not possible to allocate resouces in this way — and the LAPD management has properly elected not to make such an allocation in any case because experienced traffic patrol officers know that this would NOT result in safety improvements.

    When proper accident investigation is done, speed is rarely a factor in traffic collisions, injuries, and fatalities. (By proper, I mean trained accident investigators, not people who mearly fill out a checklist for all factors that existed, without any analysis of which were contributing to the result.)

    If we want to improve traffic safety, including pedestrian safety, we must begin with an understanding of the problem, based on analysis of the facts and what has worked — and hasn’t worked — elsewhere, as documented in the professional literature and applied by experienced, knowledgable professionals.

    Reducing speed limits is a wonderful, simple solution — and, as the old saying goes, for every complex problem, there is a simple solution — that won’t work.

  • stats dude

    Tom. I think you are missing the point.
    Speed uniformity is safer on freeways.

    It is impossible to achieve on local streets without banning buses, pedestrians, on street parking, driveways parking lots entrances, etc.
    Do you see where this is going? The only way to achieve your safety dream is to turn every street into a freeway.

    You are advocating a simple, yet wrong, solution to a complex problem.

    Youi also express some ignorance. Speed is a definite factor in the severity of collisions. Remember, pedestrians do not have airbags.

    If the police cannot enforce the laws, the only real solution is to engineer the speed out of the street, to make it safe for all modes of transportation, not just the car.

    And if you don’t understand that last paragraph, I suggest you look up the complete streets act signed by the governor, or DD64 by caltrans. Then come back and comment.

  • Seriously – he is totally missing the point. “Safety” as defined by him needs to be spelled out here. How is it “safer” (for nonmotorists and motorists alike) when vehicles are traveling 40mph in a residential area?

    If we’re concerned about “safety”, and didn’t really give a hoot about car travel times and convenience, we could try things like a removal of an auto lane, lane width reductions, neckdowns at intersections, closer striping of the road, and a whole host of options.

  • “speed is rarely a factor in traffic collisions” -Tom Rubin

    This statement shows he isn’t just missing the point, he has no idea what the hell he is talking about. Unless two parked cars with force of their own, and no outside forces, by sheer defiance of physics collide somehow, speed is a factor in every collision. Speed effects traction, braking distance, turning radius, reaction time, severity of impact, etc. In some cases a difference as small as 35 mph versus 30 mph can mean the difference between life and death for a pedestrian hit by a car.

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