Radar, speed traps and safety
Publication Date: Wednesday Sep 20, 1995

Radar, speed traps and safety

In the ongoing quest for traffic safety, we should keep an open mind toward new ideas

Nobody likes traffic, though most of us do our part in creating it. But for residents of Palo Alto's busy "arterial" streets, such as Embarcadero, University and Middlefield, traffic problems--particularly speeding--hit, literally, close to home.

Palo Altans such as Jan Glaze, who lives on Embarcadero, have joined neighbors in brainstorming for ways to remind drivers that theirs is a residential street. "It's a Herculean task to get (drivers on Embarcadero) to realize they're no longer on 101 or, if they're heading east that they're not already on 101," Glaze said. Another Embarcadero resident said he frequently gets honked at (or sworn at) when he slows down to enter his driveway. Residents of Middlefield, Charleston and University face similar problems.

In response to rising complaints from residents about traffic, the Palo Alto City Council this summer approved a series of measures aimed at increasing enforcement and safety. They include a reintroduction of police motorcycles in Palo Alto for the first time in 25 years; a program to arm residents with radar guns so that police can later mail warning letters (but not tickets) to speeders; the installation of yellow flashing lights, on a trial basis, on Embarcadero Road on each side of Walter Hays School; and a plan to increase enforcement at intersections and stretches with high accident or speeding rates.

Another potential enforcement measure was postponed by the Council, but will be coming back for a thumbs up or down in November. It involves the counter-intuitive idea of actually raising the speed limit on arterials in order to more effectively nab speeders, and it is generating controversy.

The background is this: State law forbids police to use radar to enforce an unreasonably low speed limit. To be able to use radar for a posted speed limit, the city must demonstrate through a traffic survey that the vast majority of drivers are abiding by that limit. (This requirement is based on the premise that 85 percent of the drivers, through their own assessment of road conditions, will travel at a reasonable and safe speed.)

Past traffic data gathered in Palo Alto suggests that in order to legally use radar to nab speeders on streets such as Middlefield, Embarcadero and Charleston, the posted limits would have to be raised from 25 to 30 or even 35. Many residents of those streets say, 'no way!'

In November, the City Council will decide whether the staff should conduct a traffic study to establish the radar-enforceable speed on certain arterials, and then use radar enforcement for a trial period of three months. Beyond determining the 85th percentile, the city is allowed to deduct 5 mph from the speed limit depending on roadside conditions and the accident record of a given stretch.

We believe the city should go ahead and undertake this trial. Though residents worry that a 5 mph increase in the posted limit will be a license to speed, past studies indicate that raising the speed limit has little bearing on how fast people travel. To a much greater extent, this is determined by drivers' own perceptions of what is safe.

Past traffic studies in Palo Alto and elsewhere have created a large body of data on this subject, which we should take advantage of. If a small jump in the posted speed limit promises in the long run to make our streets safer through radar enforcement, it is worth a try.

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