Speed limits on L.A. streets have gone up for decades. That’s about to change

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Los Angeles speed limits have been creeping up for decades under California Vehicle Code. But that’s about to change starting Jan. 1, 2022. (Photo: Getty Images)

(NEXSTAR) – Los Angeles, perhaps the American city most famous for driving, has a speeding problem. But soon, safe street advocates hope they’ll be able to say LA had a speeding problem. 

That’s because the way the city determines its speed limits is about to change thanks to a new law going into effect Jan 1, 2022. 

Prior to Assembly Bill 43, Los Angeles has been setting speed limits using the “85% rule” under California Vehicle Code. Basically, speed limits are set by speed surveys. That means every few years, someone with the Department of Transportation comes out to a street, monitors how fast everyone is going, and sets the new speed limit at the 85th percentile. 

If you think about it a different way, the speed limit is essentially being set by the top 15% of fastest drivers. 

“The method by which speed limits were set meant that the fastest drivers would set the speed limit since most drivers generally travel just above the posted limit,” said Colin Sweeney, a Los Angeles Department of Transportation spokesperson.

The standard practice caused speed limits in Los Angeles and other California cities to creep higher and higher over time. “This method gave no consideration to other uses of the streets such as pedestrian activity or what speed the street was originally engineered for,” said Sweeney.

Between 2016 and 2020, drivers killed 640 pedestrians, LAist reports. 

That wasn’t the only problem with the speed surveys. In order to enforce a speed limit on any given road, there would need to be an up-to-date speed survey. But doing that speed survey almost always meant raising the speed limit in order to enforce it. 

“These increases would come regardless of whether or not there were engineering changes that might merit such a change,” Sweeney explained. “In the last cycle prior to AB43, LADOT had to raise speed limits on 200 miles of city streets, often on streets with the highest frequency of fatal or severe injury crashes.”

Here’s where AB43, the new law taking effect Jan. 1, comes in. It gives cities more control and makes it easier to lower speed limits in areas where there are safety concerns, like business districts where there’s lots of foot traffic. 

Streets with a history of pedestrian collisions will also become eligible for speed reductions, Sweeney said. 

The legislation easily passed the California Assembly in a 68-5 vote and the Senate with a 30-5 vote.

LADOT is currently working with city councilors to determine which streets and corridors should be top priority for reducing speed limits, Sweeney said. One possibility is Olympic Boulevard near Overland. A pedestrian was killed in a crash there in February, yet the speed limit still needed to be raised in order to be enforced.  

For those bemoaning the idea of easing off the gas, LADOT asks you to consider this: “A person struck by a vehicle going 35 mph has a 68% chance of survival. The survival rate plummets to 35% if the vehicle is going 40 mph.”

“How we set speed limits within Los Angeles is a matter of life and death,” said LADOT General Manager Seleta Reynolds. 

Safe street advocates hope the new rules will reduce the pedestrian death toll, but that work will take time. While the law goes into effect in 2022, cities can’t start enforcing lower speed limits until June 30, 2024 or whenever the state creates an online portal to adjudicate the new infractions – whichever comes sooner. 

You can read the full text of AB 43 and all the changes that come with it here

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