State Law Hinders Cities' Attempt to Set Low Speed Limits


On Sept. 10, 1991, a Ventura County sheriff's deputy, using radar, pulled Judith Ann Goulet over for driving 52 m.p.h. on a Camarillo street with a speed limit of 35.

Confronted with the radar results, most drivers would have paid the $95 speeding ticket and put it behind them.

But Goulet, whose husband, Art Goulet, is the county's road commissioner, fought the citation. She claimed that Camarillo, which is not under her husband's jurisdiction, had set up an illegal speed trap.

Early this year, an appeals court agreed.

Goulet was driving too fast near a senior citizens complex and in an area where pedestrians and bicyclists are often present, the deputy testified. Nevertheless, the three-judge appellate panel ruled that Camarillo's own traffic studies showed that the speed limit on Ponderosa Drive should have been higher.

The Goulet case sheds light on the dilemma that city officials throughout Ventura County face when they set speed limits.

Residents, concerned about safety, lobby hard for low speed limits. But under state law, police can't use radar to enforce low limits if a traffic study shows that a higher speed is safe for most drivers.

If speeding is routine on a road where few accidents have occurred, a city usually has no choice but to increase the limit. Still, many officials are reluctant to do so.

"You keep on raising the speed limits until all the streets in the city are 55 m.p.h. I don't think it's proper!" said Simi Valley Councilman Bill Davis, whose city is in the midst of a speed-limit review. "It certainly is a frustrating exercise because your local communities do not have control over the speed limits on local streets."

Added Camarillo Councilman David M. Smith: "There are special circumstances that will allow us to have a lower speed limit. But generally, we feel our hands are tied and that we're sometimes setting speed limits higher than we'd like to."

State lawmakers amended California's speed limit law in 1972 to ban arbitrary radar enforcement. One goal was to keep towns from setting up speed traps--unexpected "slow zones" in which officers can write countless speeding tickets to boost local revenues.

"There are reasons for the speed-trap law," said Sam Haynes, a California Highway Patrol spokesman in Sacramento. "It's not uncommon for localities to take advantage of people coming into the area and not being aware of the local situation or practices. They will get cited for speeding."

The law also provided uniform statewide rules for setting speed limits on local streets.

But some city officials believe that they should have the authority to set lower speed limits that address their residents' safety concerns.

"I'd say the dilemma is widespread and that it's primarily caused by a lack of understanding by the public as to what speed limits can and cannot do," said Gary Foxen, traffic engineer for the Automobile Club of Southern California and a member of a state advisory committee on traffic control.

"The public believes that if you post lower numbers on a speed-limit sign, then everyone will abide by it," he said. "Conversely, if you post higher numbers, then everyone will drive faster.

"The reality is that people do not drive the roadway consistent with the speed limit. Most people are driving at a speed that they feel comfortable with, according to the conditions that exist."

Foxen said the Auto Club is satisfied with the present speed-limit law and is not seeking changes.

Under this law, the maximum speed on most major roads is 55 m.p.h., unless local officials set a lower limit. To enforce a lower speed limit with radar, the city must conduct a traffic study on that street every five years during off-peak hours.

Under rules set up by the California Department of Transportation, traffic engineers calculate the 85th-percentile speed, which means that 85% of the vehicles are moving at or below this speed. Generally, the road's speed limit is set at the nearest 5 m.p.h. increment below that figure.

For example, if the 85th-percentile speed is 37 m.p.h., the city usually sets the speed limit at 35 m.p.h. If there are hidden hazards or an unusual road design, a city can decide that another 5-m.p.h. decrease is justified--in this case to 30 m.p.h.

If a city does not follow these rules, its traffic tickets may not stand up in court, which is what happened after Goulet received her citation for driving 52 m.p.h. in a 35-m.p.h. zone.

Goulet's husband was familiar with that stretch of road, and he suspected that the ticket was not valid.

"I said, 'That sounds like a speed trap to me,' " Art Goulet recalled.

Art Goulet, a Camarillo resident, is the county's director of public works. Wearing a second hat as the county's road commissioner, he also sets speed limits in unincorporated areas.

He discovered that in 1988, Camarillo had determined that 85% of the cars on Ponderosa Drive were traveling at 48 m.p.h. or less--and that 95% of the drivers were exceeding the 35-m.p.h. speed limit.

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