Vroom! It’s Time to Talk Speed Limit Increases at City Council

When we last checked in with the City Council Transportation Committee, they decided to table a motion to increase the speed limit on Chandler Boulevard, where the limit would increase from 35 MPH to 45 MPH along the Orange Line, and Riverside Drive which would change the limit from 35 MPH to 40 MPH for its entire length between the Burbank border and Van Nuys Boulevard in Sherman Oaks. The Councilman for the area, Paul Krekorian, wanted a chance for the community to give input on the increases before the proposal went through, and now the increases are back on the agenda for tomorrow’s meeting.

So what was the community’s feedback? Unsurprisingly, they are concerned that faster speeds for cars will lead to roads that are less safe for pedestrians and cyclists, especially those observing a religious holiday, senior citizens, and school students. Last year, we saw the Woodland Hills-Warner Center Neighborhood Council voice similar concerns but that didn’t stop speed limits from being increased near schools, places of worship and shopping malls.

Those fighting the limit increases are in for a long haul. As we’ve seen before, the scapegoat for speed limit increases used by the LADOT and Council is a state law that mandates that a speed survey be completed every five to seven years and that the new limit be set within five miles per hour of the 85th percentile of drivers. Last year, Assemblyman Paul Krekorian sponsored legislation that would have changed the way limits are calculated across the state; but with Krekorian moving his offices from Sacramento to 200 Spring Street, a new leader on this issue has yet to emerge.

I’ve been corresponding on this issue with staff from Assembly Transportation Committee Chair Mike Eng, who have been nothing but polite and helpful despite the pounding Eng took on this blog after Krekorian’s legislation was bottled in his committee last year. When I asked them if any new legislation had been submitted on this issue, they pointed me to committee staff who basically said, "not that we know of." Last week, over 400 pieces of legislation were filed before a 2/16 deadline, but to the best knowledge of both the Chairman’s staff and Committee staff, none of them dealt with reforming the way the state looks at speed limit increases.

One reason that legislators may be hesitant to pick up this fight in Sacramento is because it looks to be a daunting task to get this law changed. First off, there are entrenched interests who will push back both officially, such as AAA, or unofficially, in the form of "expert testimony" given by our friends at the California Highway Patrol. Second, following the Transportation Committee’s rejection of Krekorian’s legislation last year, Eng and his Senate counterpart Alan Lowenthal held a special "informational" hearing on this issue in October of last year. Attached here, you can find an informational packet that was given to all legislators in attendance, which outlines a major hurdle to reforming the laws requiring speed limit increases.

The process for setting speed limits is guided by federal standards contained in the National MUTCD. Any change to the process in California must be approved by the Federal Highway Administration as being "in substantial compliance" with the National MUTCD. The process for setting speed limits on California streets and highways is contained in the Californiasupplement to the MUTCD, which is known simply as the California MUTCD. Caltrans is responsible for maintaining the guidance and standards in the manual and receives input on changes to the manual from the California Traffic Control Devices Committee (CTCDC), an advisory body convened by Caltrans.

In other words, even if a legislator is successful in guiding reform legislation through the Assembly and Senate. And then is successful in getting our car-loving, jet-setting Governor to sign the legislation; before it can become law it must be approved by the Highway Division of the federal government. In the era of term limits, a legislator could spend his entire time in office focused solely on this issue and not get anywhere.

There are plenty of people who have argued that the problem isn’t that the law doesn’t provide enough flexibility to keep speed limits low, but that our roads in Southern California are designed to move cars as quickly as possible at the expense of other modes.  Thus, limits are going to keep rising on arterial streets until capacity issues cause them to slow down.  The response from those fighting the increases in Sacramento and locally has been that a legislative victory is a heck of a lot easier than reforming the LADOT.  However, if that’s not the case, then the time is ripe for communities to take control of their streets through better design and traffic enforcement rather than focusing on the limits by themselves.

  • What happened to the good old days when speed limits were fixed and easy to learn?

    15 – Alleys
    25 – Residential Streets
    35 – Commercial streets
    45 – Rural roads and urban arteries
    55 – Freeways

    That’s it. You didn’t even need a sign to know the speed limit.

    Now, you might drive down a street and see 40, 45, 35, 40, 50 in a couple of miles. Every time you turn a corner you need to look to see what this new road is signed for.

  • patrick

    I believe that the 85th percentile limitation has to do only with “radar enforced” speed limits. Couldn’t LAPD just enforce the preferred lower limit without radar?

  • DanaPointer

    Let’s just get the inevitable over with and make the speed limit 150mph at once, maybe then the resulting carnage will make people afraid to drive and ultimately result in safer streets for bicycles, I am not sure it would be any worse than what it is like there on the roads already with drivers buzzing me with no room at 50mph already. Cyclist lives in LA are cheap…

  • Eric B

    @ Patrick:

    The other enforcement methods are often more dangerous to everyone on the road, particularly pacing. If one car going too fast is bad, imagine a LAPD cruiser trying to match that speed and then pull them over. I don’t know about other ways, such as is it legal to time a car traveling between two fixed points? That would be tedious for sure.

    The best way to handle this truly is design, particularly with narrower lanes. If it’s uncomfortable to drive fast, 85% of drivers will slow down, leaving radar for the rest of them.

  • Neil O

    From: Neil O
    Date: Thu, Jan 28, 2010 at 11:15 PM
    Subject: proposed speed limits on Valley streets (Chandler and Riverside)
    To: councilmember.Krekorian@lacity.org, councilmember.Labonge@lacity.org, paul.koretz@lacity.org

    Councilmembers Krekorian, Koretz, and La Bonge:

    This letter is in opposition to the proposed speed limit increases on Chandler Blvd and Riverside Drive in the San Fernando Valley. I am a resident of northwest Glendale and I regularly drive, walk, and cycle in Glendale and the neighboring cities.

    I understand the current vehicle code requires the city to perform traffic studies every 7 years to establish speed limits that will enable the police to use radar as an enforcement tool. My concern is that these studies fail to acknowledge CVC 627(c)(2) which specifically permits the studies to consider bicycle and pedestrian safety also.

    It seems clear that the goal of traffic engineers conducting these studies is to maximize the flow of traffic on our streets and minimize car-on-car collisions. They seem primarily motivated to allow speed limits to increase up to a practical limit. Common counter-arguments to lowering speed limits are that most drivers are already exceeding the established limits, that posting lower speed limits can cause more accidents, and that only aggressive enforcement can change driver behavior.

    What about the safety of pedestrians or bicyclists?

    I recently read a German study that shows the relationship of pedestrian accidents involving children and the speed limits and other design considerations in their neighborhood. One conclusion of the study is that children who live in neighborhoods where streets have speed limits roughly 20 mph (30 kph) are FIVE times less likely to be involved in an accident than children in neighborhoods without those speed limits. See for details:


    Another paper at the NHTSA relates collision speed to the severity of pedestrian injury. In a collision the pedestrian mortality rate is 5% at 20 mph, 40% at 30 mph, 80% at 40 mph, and 100% over 50 mph.


    So there is a danger in adopting the attitude that raising speed limits is benign as long as car-on-car collisions are minimized. Raising the speed limit can have significant impact to pedestrians and bicycles. For a pedestrian the difference between 30 mph and 40 mph is TWICE the mortality. And at 50 mph it’s certain death.

    If motorist behavior cannot be influenced by speed limits and posted signs alone, and if aggressive enforcement cannot be sustained, then the clear alternative is to introduce traffic calming measures to keep our streets safe for all.

    Risking pedestrian lives in the name of motorist convenience is simply not acceptable under any circumstances.

  • One key pillar to argue against the way things are:

    The design of the street will determine the 85th percentile of car speeds. The E&TS dictates what the LADOT can look at when setting the speed limit, but doesn’t limit the LADOT from recommending changes in the design of the street to lower speed limits to safer, more humane, levels. We’re talking easy stuff: narrowed lanes, close spacing with road stripes, bike lanes, trees, paint and plastic bollard chicanes or roundabouts, etc.

    To take this a bit further:

    The LADOT is the sole body responsible for transportation planning – that’s “TRANSPORTATION” and “PLANNING” together. Their job is not to move as many cars as fast as possible. What sort of planning is the LADOT performing? Do they survey residents and businesses? Do they take an honest look at the SWITRS data in their city and find the most dangerous intersections, report on those intersections and work to make them safer?

    The City Council may not be able to affect the MUTCD, and they may not be able to change the culture of the LADOT – but they sure as hell can make changes to the way streets in LA are studied and described.

    The LADOT scares the council with car-centric data, and a fear of the silent motoring majority the LADOT always assumes has their back. The Council needs to be able to confront the complaints that will surely follow any attempt to slow, or maintain current, speeds on streets in LA. To be able to confront charges of causing congestion, the Council needs maps of where and how people are dying and getting injured on LA’s streets. The Council needs maps showing where it’s sales tax dollars are coming from, and a bunch of other stuff that will inform their decisions to slow down, or prevent from increasing, vehicle speeds.

    It is too easy to blame the cars-as-sewage LADOT – make this about what the council can do, and what information the council needs, to prevent these increases in the future.

  • nobody

    The problem with city council not approving the increase in speed limits is that if they don’t, state law states the speed limit on the road is the maximum speed limit, which is 65 MPH. If these roads could be considered business or residential districts (CVC 240 defines this), then the shouldn’t do the survey so the speed could be 25 MPH (or whatever the City Council wants).

  • Neil O


    Agree, and perhaps one way to motivate the City Council is with the data. Consider, for instance (all numbers made up)

    Suppose on that section of Chandler Blvd the daily traffic volume is 25,000 vehicle miles. Suppose the statistical rate is 2 accidents per million vehicle miles. Then in a year we have 18.25 accidents, and in 5 years nearly 100 accidents. Now let’s say the frequency of accidents involving a pedestrian is (I have no idea… 2 percent?) So 2 pedestrian accidents every 5 years on that part of Chandler.

    Now raise the speed limit from 30 to 40 mph. The mortality rate per pedestrian accident goes from 40% to 80%, i.e. doubles. And out of two accidents per 5 years one person likely dies.

    You see where I’m going with this. Traffic engineers are expected to maintain a “normal” accident rate. But it seems obvious the *severity* of the accidents on the participants are compounded by the speed limit. Connecting those dots makes it clear that the traffic engineering studies should consider these factors together.

  • JD

    From: http://www.dot.ca.gov/hq/traffops/signtech/mutcdsupp/

    “California Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices Branch”

    “Please be aware that FHWA has released the new 2009 MUTCD but it is not effective in California until Caltrans and CTCDC review it and incorporate the changes into California MUTCD through formal efforts. California has until January 15, 2012 to accomplish this task although it is anticipated that it would be done sooner.”

  • Niel O you bring up a good point, which is that the LADOT uses the largest possible number to divide the number of crashes, deaths, and injuries along it’s streets – making it seem like our roads are just as safe when automobiles are driving faster.

    The ridiculous numbers they use need to be broken down by the number of crashes, deaths, and injuries which will increase or stay the same with these speed limit increases.

    Anyone looking to tarnish an incumbents’ record would only have to show how a councilmember voted on these speed limit increases net to a body count of traffic deaths or a headshot of person killed on a street soon after the speed limit was increased. It is too easy, once the analysis has been done on the numbers and the inevitable fatality occurs.

    Perhaps we should simply sit on our hands and wait for the right, most photogenic, innocent to be killed in L.A., then create a “[Name of dead kid]’s Law” to change the way streets are measured and designed. Or we could take our pick from the fatalities that have already occurred.

    I am envisioning a mailer right now of a smiling kid next to an image of a councilmember voting to increase speed limits on the street the kid was killed on.

    Or we could name all the dead kids “Antonio’s Children” or something equally disgusting. Create a picture of Antonio Villaraigosa the grim reaper, coming to harvest souls with his scythe named “LADOT speed limit increases”.

    Sorry, I’m off on a hyperbolic rant – but you get the idea. The politics of this are actually quite easy to deal with now that I think about it. All this mucking about with the law this, and the law that, is a big waste of time – we need crash stats that matter, and imagery that makes a difference, to stop these speed limit increases.

  • Neil O

    So I did a bit of poking around on those stats…

    According to the LADOT the injury accident rate on that section of Chandler is 2.83 per million vehicle miles traveled (VMT). The 2008 SWITRS summary report says approx 5% of injury accidents statewide involve pedestrians.

    So now let’s replay my hypothetical — I’m still assuming traffic volume on Chandler is 25,000 VMT per day. But at 2.83 accidents per million VMT that’s 25.82 injury accidents per year. And say 5% of those accidents are pedestrians – that’s 1.3 pedestrian accidents per year.

    If the speed is 30mph then 40% (0.52) pedestrians are killed per year. Raise the speed to 40mph and 80% (1.04) pedestrians are killed per year.

    But to be fair — it’s not necessarily true that every accident happens at the posted speed limit, especially if we’re talking about cars turning at intersections and so forth…

  • Here is what I don’t get – why VMT? Why not injury based on Average Daily Trips?

    Chandler is doing anywhere from 3,000 ADT to 34,000+ ADT (at Lankershim), depending on the intersection, according to the LADOT’s own published traffic counts.

    Chandler is a long street, and VMT on it is not the same as ADT, no? One car driving the length of the street equals a big number of miles for one car. One hundred cars driving on chandler for short distances can equal the same number of VMT, but be counted as much higher or lower ADT at intersections. I can’t understand why VMT is used to determine safety – when it draws the analysis away from specific areas and conditions that are most likely causing the crashes!

    My guess is that the parts of Chandler with the most reported crashes are also the ones with highest ADT through them. Who cares about VMT?

    Since reading my first E&TS I was wondering about the use of this inane number in this analysis.

    “Oh, only 1.04 pedestrian dead on Chandler a year? Why, that doesn’t even sound like much to worry about to me. Just thinning the herd, I guess”

    As opposed to, “This one stretch of road has contributed 1 pedestrian death a year for the past ten years” or “There are an awful lot of car crashes reported here, what is going on and will raising speed limits make fewer crashes occur?”.


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