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Some Speed Limits to Rise : Orange Wants to Preclude Challenges to 'Speed-Trap' Tickets


Orange — Higher speed limit signs will soon be posted all over this city as officials respond to a court ruling they fear could have their streets declared one big speed trap.

As a result of the recent ruling, other cities in Orange County may have to revise their speed limits as well, to comply with state speed-trap laws that forbid cities to post speeds that are artificially low.

Over the next six months, Orange will spend an estimated $50,000 on new signs and traffic studies to bump up speed limits on 75% of its roadways, limits which have been kept low for years, primarily because of community pressure. Without the overhaul, citations based on police use of radar guns could, if challenged, be tossed out of court.

The state Vehicle Code requires that speed limits be set in a fair manner. For speed limits under 55 m.p.h. that means they must be based on a survey of how fast motorists actually drive on that road when there is free-flowing traffic. They cannot be based on whimsy or community pressure.

The 4th District Court of Appeal in Santa Ana dismissed a pair of Santa Ana speeding tickets in January because the speed limits on both streets were set more than 10 m.p.h. too slow and were thus deemed speed traps.

"This means the speed-trap laws are alive and well," said attorney John R. Farris Jr., one of two attorneys who won the Santa Ana case.

The decision follows a definitive ruling on speed traps in a Ventura County case two years ago. But the recent appeals court appeals court actions marks one of the first tests in Orange county of the precedent-setting ruling. The Santa Ana decision sends a strong signal to Orange County municipalities that they must demonstrate that their speed limits are fair. Otherwise cities face having their radar enforcement undermined.

The case shook up the city of Orange. Without the decision, "we would not be changing as many speed limits in such a brief period," said Bernie Denis, head of Orange's traffic engineering department. "It would not be such a gross change."

An informal survey of Orange County shows that officials in all cities are unfamiliar with the court decision and its implications. Even in Santa Ana, where the case originated, City Atty. Edward J. Cooper said it's too soon yet to determine what impact the decision will have.

According to the ruling, the posted speed limit must fall within 5 m.p.h. of the speed driven by the "85th percentile" of drivers in an actual traffic survey of the street. An exception such as a high accident rate, can justify a 5-m.p.h. reduction in the posted speed limit. The survey must be updated every five years. (The 85th percentile is determined by surveying 100 drivers and determining the speed of the 85th fastest.)

The ruling that moved the city of Orange to action stems from two speeding tickets issued in Santa Ana in 1991. The first was given to a motorist driving 50 m.p.h. in a 35-m.p.h. zone on West 17th Street between Bristol Street and the Santa River, according to court records. The other driver received a speeding ticket for going 45 m.p.h. in a 25-m.p.h. zone on Greenville Street between West 1st Street and St. Gertrude Place.

In both instances, said the appeals court, the citations were invalid. In the first case on West 17th Street, the 85th-percentile speed was 45.3 m.p.h., while in the second instance on Greenville Street, the 85th-percentile speed was 42.1 m.p.h.

Though the ruling stands, Santa Ana traffic officials insist that the court made a mistake, because the prosecutor used an old traffic survey.

"I feel both of these tickets are probably good," said Ruth Smith of the Santa Ana Traffic Engineering Department. "We've gone to a lot of trouble to make sure everything is legal."

The traffic engineers said their current 1991 survey of West 17th Street would justify a 40-m.p.h. speed limit and another 5-m.p.h. reduction because of a high accident rate.

In the second case, the 25-m.p.h. zone was warranted because of a nearby public school, say traffic officials.

For his part, Alex Mendoza is pleased with the court's action. Mendoza said he decided to fight the speeding ticket he received on 17th Street nearly three years ago because he was going no faster than anyone else.

"The court's decision makes me feel good," said the 33-year-old Laguna Nigel resident. "Because now tickets will be given out fairly."

Mendoza's court victory affected Orange officials, who announced at a City Council meeting last month that recent traffic surveys require the raising of speed limits between 5 and 10 m.p.h. in more than 150 of its 200 speed zones because of new traffic surveys.

The news upset some residents who fear that the higher limits will encourage even faster driving on their neighborhood streets.

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