Police oppose proposed speed-limit changes

New way to calculate limits could result in more accidents, cops say

Police chiefs throughout the Bay Area are protesting a proposed change to speed limits that they say could result in drivers going faster and faster on residential streets and getting into more accidents.

The rule change, recommended by an advisory committee to the California Department of Transportation, would use a new formula to calculate speed limits.

The proposal would also curtail the freedom that cities and law-enforcement agencies have to set speed limits in their jurisdictions.

Under the current law, speed limits are set at what is called the 85th percentile — the speed that separates the slower 85 percent of motorist speeds from the fastest 15 percent.

Cities have some flexibility in setting the limits. They could round down to get to the nearest 5 mph if conditions call for it, or round up to make numbers even (from 29 mph to 30, for example). The lower speed could be justified by collision records, traffic, residential density, pedestrian, bicycle safety and roadside conditions, according to Laura Wells, deputy director of transportation and parking operations for the City of San Jose.

But the proposed change would put a 50th percentile "floor" in place that caps the slowest speed at what 50 percent of drivers do. If, on a residential street, the speed limit is posted at 25 mph, but the 50th percentile is 26 mph, the new speed limit would have to be rounded up to 30, according to Wells.

"You have to go to the higher speed," she said.

The committee believes the speed should be set close to what the majority of motorists are driving, Wells said.

"It's a mathematical exercise versus an engineering judgment," she added. "They have taken away the ability for local agencies to use engineering judgment."

Speed limits on many Palo Alto streets could be much higher if the change goes through, according to Palo Alto Police Chief Lynne Johnson.

"If this language is approved, our cities would be forced to increase the posted speed limits on many of our streets," she said. For example, San Jose would have to increase the limits on more than 266 streets and Sunnyvale would need to increase limits on 63 percent of its streets.

"This most certainly will lead to more accidents as most residential streets are not able to handle those speeds," Johnson said.

Johnson said she has asked the city's transportation division to work up the number of streets that could be affected. She said she can't yet put a figure on what costs might be to the police department or the city, but costs in officer time to respond to accidents could go up.

Wells said cities are already strapped due to budget cuts and will need to spend more money to install additional traffic-calming devices, such as speed bumps and traffic tables.

Police see another wrinkle that could be caused by the rule change.

The speed-limit adjustments won't be a one-time thing, and that is deeply concerning, according to Lt. Jeff Smith, assistant to San Jose police Chief Robert Davis.

"If this change takes place, speeds will creep up. After seven years, when surveys need to be rewritten, we can expect that the ... floor will increase yet again," he said.

Caltrans officials did not return phone calls asking for comment on this article. A hearing on the recommendations will take place in San Francisco on Thursday.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Hulkamania
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on May 27, 2008 at 11:40 am

There are no accidents.

 +   Like this comment
Posted by Confused
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 27, 2008 at 12:16 pm

The police department have my sympathy. These new rules look even more complicated than the old 85th percentile. Because of the complexity it is becoming more and more difficult for Police Officers to issue speeding tickets. Also, it is becoming easier to challenge a speeding ticket because it's hard to know what the speed limit is on a given street.

 +   Like this comment
Posted by FeatherFoot
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 27, 2008 at 12:56 pm

Complicated or not, this proposed change will almost certainly result in a higher number of accidents. If you haven't noticed, there are many people in this city who could still benefit from driving lessons! As far as knowing what the speed limit is on a given street, that's easy. Unless it's a state road (like El Camino Real, a.k.a. State Route 82), and unless it's posted otherwise, the speed limit is 25 mph. See California Vehicle Code Section 22352(a)(2)(A).

 +   Like this comment
Posted by Driver
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 27, 2008 at 1:56 pm


Now Middlefield may get a realistic limit and we can spend our time driving looking out for hazards rather than our speedometers looking at the speed.

 +   Like this comment
Posted by Just Me
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on May 27, 2008 at 2:07 pm

Residential streets should not have their speed limits jacked up at all, regardless of what speeds idiot drivers in residential neighborhoods do. It's not about making drivers happy, "going with the flow", possible fender-benders, or the need to rush to some destination. It is about kids on tricycles and skateboards being exposed to danger, and there is no amount of justification you can do that will make me feel any better about risking my kids. I see too much speeding an stop-sign running as it is. I think the better solution would be better enforcement and speed bumps rather than pandering to the speeders.

 +   Like this comment
Posted by Boy Howdy
a resident of Midtown
on May 27, 2008 at 3:23 pm

What would you call a realistic speed on Middlefield road?? Take Alma or El Camino if you want to drive faster. Trying to turn into my driveway on Middlefield is difficult when the guy behind you wants to drive 40mph.

It's tools like you that should be getting tickets ("Driver")

 +   Like this comment
Posted by Traffic nightmare
a resident of Midtown
on May 27, 2008 at 3:27 pm

Boy Howdy--what is your address on Middlefield so we can try to turn into your driveway. Anyway, you are confusing speeding with tailgating.
Too bad joe Kott didn't succeed in turning Middlefield into a one lane in each direction street like him and Yoriko Kishimoto planned.

 +   Like this comment
Posted by Driver
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 27, 2008 at 3:32 pm

Yes, my speedo is a tool and it tells me how fast I am going when I look at it. I would rather be looking at the hazards and other traffic.

I do sympathise with those living on Middlefield, but they chose to live on a busy street. It is residential in that there are residences there, but it is a four lane arterial and traffic needs to use it. The problem is that if a car is doing 25 mph it is causing more danger than the cars doing 30. My cruise control will not work at 25 and for me it is safer to do the same speed as other cars because one slow car can cause much more danger by crawling along and causing other cars to behave badly trying to overtake.

Alma is a bad example as it is really difficult to get onto Alma by turning left apart from lights. El Camino is not a street I need to travel very often. Middlefield however has many of my shopping and other destinations, LL ball park, church, gas station, library, dentist, etc. etc.

 +   Like this comment
Posted by Just Me
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on May 27, 2008 at 4:11 pm

I can understand wanting to go more than 25 MPH. You can do that without a problem as long as you are not on a residential street. Middlefield is a residential street.

I don't think turning Middlefield into a one-lane faster street is a very good solution. A better solution would be to have the city buy up the houses along Middlefield, allocate some of the land wo a wider street, rezone the rest of the land for small businesses, and then you could talk about raising the limit. Wanna help fund that project?

In the meantime, the limit is 25 and I think it would be reprehensable to raise that limit just because too many drivers don't care about the safety of our children.

And just between you and me, I would not want to be a driver who was speeding on Middlefield and as a result hit a kid. There are many reasons why I would not want that, from the "We're not gonna bother calling the cops" attitude of the parents and neighbors to the possibility of having to live with that guilt. There is nothing I am late for that is worth that risk.

 +   Like this comment
Posted by Driver
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 27, 2008 at 4:33 pm

I don't think anyone understands the point. It isn't that I want to go faster on Middlefield. I want to be able to travel at the speed the rest of the traffic is going, usually about 30, and pay attention to what is going on around me. If I am traveling the same as other traffic, I can pay attention to hazards. If I travel too slow, I am causing a hazard. I make it more dangerous as other cars are likely to take chances overtaking me.
On a side street doing 25 is what everyone does. If I go slow, the cars behind me go slow. Overtaking is minimal. On a two lane street, cars are more likely to switch lanes which can cause more accidents if they are stuck behind someone going too slow.

I am not advocating speeding. I am advocating safe driving habits. I think that driving at 25 on Middlefield is more dangerous as it takes concentration away from driving and causes other drivers to behave badly.

 +   Like this comment
Posted by Agree
a resident of Green Acres
on May 27, 2008 at 4:36 pm

I agree with Driver on this. Middlefield is a four lane artery that happens to have houses. There are plenty of houses, shops, even schools, on Alma, Charleston, and Arestradero, too - should we cut the speed limit there back to 25 as well? The town needs its arterials. It is NIMBY to set an arterial speed to 25 because you happen to live there. If you don't like the arterial traffic, there are many other houses available to you.

 +   Like this comment
Posted by Walter E. Wallis
a resident of Midtown
on May 27, 2008 at 5:04 pm

I suspect this is more about revenue than safety. When was the last traffic death on Middlefield or Embarcadero?

 +   Like this comment
Posted by a long time resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 28, 2008 at 12:14 am

Since speeding is breaking the law changing the speed limit based on how the law is broken is like making robbing a bank ok if enough people do it.

I suspect the speed limit on University Ave won't be increased if everyone tries to drive 40 mph. The police will enforce the law where they are told to. Only certain streets are traffic laws enforced and it dosen't take much thinking to figure out where that is.

Where there is no enforcement there are actually no traffic laws and people know this and disregard sighs, red lights, etc.

Our leaders goals are to get the 60,000commuters to their jobs as fast as possible, except thru their neighborhoods.

When driving S. on Middlefield N. of Oregon Expressway cars go 20 to 25mph. Once they cross Oregon Exp. they drive as fast as their car will go.

 +   Like this comment
Posted by Walter_E_Wallis
a resident of Midtown
on May 28, 2008 at 4:58 am

I tell my kids - when the sign is black and white it is political - when it is yellow and black it is engineering, and the penalty for violating an engineerd limit is beyond appeal. I ask again of those advocating political speed limits, show the evidence for your position.

 +   Like this comment
Posted by TL
a resident of Midtown
on May 28, 2008 at 7:20 am

Since the speed limit on most arterials in Palo Alto is the 85th percentile, I'd forget about 25 mph. The Police don't seems to give speeding tickets to those exceeding 25 mph, they do give speeding tickets to those exceeding the 85th percentile.

You can always challenge a speeding ticket in traffic court, more and more drivers are doing just that. The condition of the roadway, time of day, weather conditions, traffic flow etc. all contribute to whether a Judge will uphold a speeding violation.

 +   Like this comment
Posted by Another Driver
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 28, 2008 at 7:25 am

You're more likely to get a ticket for running a stop sign than speeding because the law regarding speeding is so vague and convoluted. That's why you see our traffic officers targeting certain cross streets, it is easier for them to get red light runners than speeders.

 +   Like this comment
Posted by Just Me
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on May 28, 2008 at 1:54 pm

<i>When was the last traffic death on Middlefield or Embarcadero?</i>

Is this a way to tell if a speed limit is too low? No one killed? Should we start raising the limit a little at a time until people start getting killed, and then stop raising it?

What's wrong with this picture?

 +   Like this comment
Posted by Walter_E_Wallis
a resident of Midtown
on May 29, 2008 at 1:41 pm

Just, there needs to be a rationale behind any law other than "I feel like it and I've got the power."
The rationale behind speed limits is public safety. Unless there is a showing of unsafe speed, limiting speed is just bullying. In a rare moment of sanity, th legislature [possibly bleeding from some speed trap] passed the law that mandates the proceedure for setting limits. Setting limits contrary to the law is against the law. Live with it.

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