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Op-Ed: No, Dan Walters, A.B. 43 Would Not Allow “Speed Traps”

The speed limit is 35, but this is a more typical speed on this badly engineered road. Image: Paul Sousa

Dear Governor Newsom,

Please ignore CalMatters columnist Dan Walters today; he didn't do his homework.

Streetsblog doesn't usually bother to respond when Mr. Walters gets it wrong, but on this issue his curmudgeonly take is so baseless it's necessary to say something.

Also, please sign A.B. 43, the source of his dyspepsia this morning.

Walters complains of having received a speeding ticket once, long ago, when he missed a speed limit sign and got caught, he says, in a "speed trap." The fear that cities would set these traps and lie in wait to catch unsuspecting (not innocent) speeders, thus raking in dough for the police budget in the form of fines and fees on traffic tickets, led to the development of a pseudo scientific method for setting speed limits known as the "85th percentile rule."

The L.A. Times called the rule "absurd, dangerous, and counterproductive." It certainly hasn't proven to improve safety.

To explain it briefly, the method requires speed limits to be set according to how fast drivers are already driving. So if a lot of people are speeding - something anyone who has spent any time on California streets knows is a growing problem - a city could be forced to raise its speed limits. As happened in Los Angeles and elsewhere, when what the city wanted to do was lower them.

Because they know that lowering vehicle speeds is key to increasing safety on the roads.

Speed limits, of course, are not by themselves going to fix the problem of speeding. They require enforcement, problematic in its own way and anyway in short supply these days. But they are needed.

So is better street design.

The Zero Fatalities Task Force convened by the legislature spent a solid year working on this issue, hearing from experts and researchers who have been discussing the problems with the 85th percentile rule for years.

Its report [PDF] details these discussions, and recommends, first, changing the rules around setting speed limits to allow cities more flexibility in how they do so.

This is what A.B. 43 would do - allow cities to, for example, take into account the safety of vulnerable road users when setting limits. Claims by bill opponents like Dan Walters that the current rules protect people like him from speed traps is another way of claiming that the right to speed is more important than road safety. That's just flat-out wrong.

Besides, the 85th percentile rule has not even eliminated speed traps. So what is the point here?

I know you're busy, Mr. Governor. You've been signing a lot of bills lately, and there are only a few more days left before you hit the signing deadline. Safe streets advocates are getting a bit nervous about the fate of this bill, as well as several other important traffic safety bills like A.B. 122 (Safety Stop), A.B. 1238 (Decriminalize Jaywalking) and A.B. 773 (Slow Streets).

Please sign them!


Melanie Curry, Editor, Streetsblog California

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