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Lowering The Speed Limit Would Create An ‘Illegal Speed Zone’

According to the California Vehicle Code, a speed trap is “…a particular section of a highway with a prima facie speed limit that is provided by this code or by local ordinance … if that prima facie speed limit is not justified by an engineering and traffic survey conducted within five years prior to the date of the alleged violation, and enforcement of the speed limit involves the use of radar or any other electronic device that measures the speed of moving objects.”

Caltrans Traffic Engineer Darron Hill appeared before the Mendocino Board of Supervisors last week to tell them that even if most of Mendo thinks the 65 mile per hour speed limit at the top of the Willits Grade on Highway 101 is an unsafe speed, Caltrans can’t — or won’t — lower it.

“People don't drive the regulatory speed signs. They drive what they see on the road," said Hill. "The warning signs — if there is something there that they are not seeing they will notice those, otherwise they drive based on what they have observed in the past, their experience on other roads similar to that. So we have a very set procedure for developing and setting speeds. It is specifically spelled out in the California Vehicle Code as well as state statutes and we go by an engineering and traffic study survey each and every time. [Shrugs.] That's what we do and how we do it. If you send a letter, it will go to Ralph [Mr. Ralph Martinelli, Chief of Caltrans’ Traffic Safety Office in Eureka] who will send it right back to me and I will go out and do the process. We have plenty of experience doing it. We can do that. I will tell you now that based on my previous experience it likely won't change. Just so you are aware. We will absolutely address your letter but we are bound by state law on how we set the speed zones and it is very clear how we do that and that's what's going to happen.”

Supervisors John McCowen, Dan Hamburg and Carre Brown all thought the speed limit ought to be immediately reduced because the Ridgewood Grade is an obviously dangerous stretch of Highway 101. The Harris Quarry Expansion’s Environmental Impact Report even says so.

Supervisor Kendall Smith believed that lowering the speed limit now, before the Harris Quarry expansion permit is approved, was premature. She also thought that there were other ways to improve traffic safety in the area but didn't cite them.

McCowen replied that he thought Smith had “misread” the draft letter that he and Hamburg had drafted asking Caltrans to lower the speed limit to 55mph.

The letter reads:

“We urge your immediate consideration of a reduction from 65 to 55 miles per hour in the posted speed limit in the vicinity of US Highway 101 and Black Bart Drive in Mendocino County. We strongly believe a reduction in the posted speed limit is warranted under baseline conditions, particularly given the location of the Harris Quarry access road immediately south of the intersection and the frequent occurrence of limited visibility due to foggy or stormy conditions. Although the collision rate is below the statewide average, the rate for collisions involving a fatality is nearly three times the state average…"

It goes on with additional detail citing chapter and verse from the "existing conditions" section of the Harris Quarry EIR prepared by professional traffic experts.

Smith replied that she was not opposed to lowering the speed limit, but was “just questioning the timing.”

McCowen thought that lowering the speed limit shouldn’t require much study or work, “just changing a sign.”

After Mr. Hill's discouraging remarks, McCowen continued, “I have two comments: 1. I'm aware of at least one instance where Caltrans did change the speed limit to set it based on perhaps not so much objective safety conditions but community outcry even though it didn't meet the warrants and that is in Philo on Highway 128 where we have, I believe, a 35mph, or maybe it's even a 30mph posted speed limit where according to the traffic studies it should have been 45. There was a tragic accident there. It may or may not have been related to the speed zone but there was a very strong community outcry regarding the need to reduce the speed limit and Caltrans did respond to that affirmatively. I think we have a similar situation here. We have an objective study that says based on the existing conditions you have drivers both northbound and southbound that are making hazardous maneuvers to avoid slow-moving trucks and so forth. So I would hope that that is something that Caltrans would be willing to take into account.”

Hamburg agreed: “Obviously this situation will become more acute if there is a use permit for Harris Quarry. Do you agree with that? I mean, there is going to be a lot more traffic. There is going to be acceleration and deceleration so the entire situation is going to change.”

Hill: “Absolutely.”

Hamburg: “I can understand Supervisor Smith's comments in that regard. Once there is a project it becomes a front burner issue. I can see that. But I think, and I drive that road quite a bit, the fact that as you are going northbound there is a sign that says leaving 55 zone. And then you go another quarter-mile and it says Trucks with Trailers 55. But there is nowhere until you get almost to Walker Road, isn't it Walker Road? I think, down there close to the south side of Willis, where you actually see a 65. So it kind of leaves the driver in limbo because, I mean, it says Leaving 55 and I guess that people are just supposed to assume that it goes to 65. But I think it's a very confusing sign. And then, as I remember, as you go southbound, you leave Willits, you see a 65 and then you don't see anything until you get to the place where there is a sign and your speed is picked up by machine as you are going through the S-curves where the concrete blocks are. All I'm saying is that that whole area to me is very confusing to the driver. Obviously, I support this letter. I don't see any justification in an area where you have Calfire, you got the motel, you got the scales, you got Harris Quarry, you’ve got Black Bart Road — why you would want to have a 65 speed limit through there just completely boggles my mind! And I am disappointed to hear that we can send this letter in and nobody will do anything about it, because we are the people who drive that road on a weekly and sometimes a daily basis. We have looked at the statistics on the accidents and the near accidents that happen there frequently. I would really hope that Caltrans — what I see that is good about this letter is that it will kind of start you knowing what we think even without a project there, even given what’s there now we think it should be 55. When the use permit goes through which it likely will then the situation will be so acute then you shouldn't even be questioning whether it should go to 55 in my opinion.”

Brown: “Supervisor Hamburg took the words right out of my mouth. I appreciate everything he said. I compliment both Mr. Hamburg and Mr. McCowen for being so proactive on these safety concerns in this particular area. I'm ready to make the recommended motion [sending the letter to Caltrans].”

Hill: “Let me clarify, we will respond. I will do the study. I am telling you what my experience says will be the result. There are set laws and specifics on how we do it. We do look at collisions. We look at driver behavior. We look at the speed that drivers are going. Drivers drive based on what they see and experience on the roadway, not on our signs. And that's what I'm trying to get you to understand. If we set a speed, and this is what experience has shown, if we set a speed that is lower than what drivers are doing and we are creating a situation where large volumes of drivers are no longer obeying the law, it is an illegal speed zone. It's considered a speed trap. And it is not enforceable. In the instance of Philo and other speed zones where we had them lower, we are now going through and having to raise them to the speed that cars are actually driving because we no longer have the flexibility under the law to downwardly adjust speeds based on safety and the concern of the public. We set it based upon what drivers are doing and in general we assume that drivers are driving a reasonable speed.”

This is what traffic safety has come to? See what most people are doing and call it legal?

A 1992 State Supreme court case became the basis of the “illegal speed trap” section of the Vehicle Code. That decision reads in part:

“(b) An engineering and traffic survey shall include, among other requirements deemed necessary by the department, consideration of all of the following: (1) Prevailing speeds as determined by traffic engineering measurements. (2) Accident records. (3) Highway, traffic, and roadside conditions not readily apparent to the driver.”

The Board’s letter clearly itemizes several “highway, traffic and roadside conditions not readily apparent to the driver.”

From the Caltrans Traffic Manual: “The speed limit normally should be established at the first five mile per hour increment below the 85 percentile speed. However, in matching existing conditions with the traffic safety needs of the community, engineering judgment may indicate the need for a further reduction of five miles per hour. The factors justifying such a further reduction are the same factors mentioned above. Whenever such factors are considered to establish the speed limit, they should be documented on the speed zone survey or the accompanying engineering report. The establishment of a speed limit of more than 5 miles per hour below the 85 percentile (critical) speed should be done with great care as this may make violators of a disproportionate number of the reasonable majority of drivers.”

Caltrans’ own traffic manual would allow a 55 mph speed limit if conditions warrant, which they obviously do.

McCowen tried again: “You say based on driver behavior, but part of the driver behavior out there right now is ‘making unsafe lane change maneuvers’ in order to avoid trucks that are turning into the quarry. ‘Trucks coming out of the quarry’ — and these quotes apply to trucks going either direction — ‘ cars must quickly swerve around the trucks that are slowly accelerating.’ So that's the observed driver behavior right now. So arguably you could say that having the speed limit where it is is contributing to those safety factors. Should the project that's been referenced be approved there are significant improvements that the applicant will be required to make that might actually reduce some of the safety concerns. But under current conditions it sounds like it's a real kamikaze alley. Ironically, when you go south of this location you have the northbound and southbound lanes of traffic physically separated by a concrete barrier and yet the speed limit is reduced to 55. So it might fit your interpretation of state law but it certainly does not fit the safety issues that are objectively observable right now in that location.”

Supervisor Smith, who seems to instinctively rise to the defense of the irrational, replied, “My comments came from working with a number of Caltrans engineers on this issue over a number of years. I was just trying to be pragmatic about it. I think the most significant impact we would add is if there were actual roadway changes that may come forward under a permitting process or not. We don't know that yet. He but I have most recently had discussions along the lines with Darron [Hill] in regards to issues on the coast and I found him very professional. It's not just his interpretation of the law it’s what is the law. And I do know exactly what he is saying that with our letter they will take a look. They will go out and they will do their study and they will report back and I think his cautionary note could change but as I noted it probably won't change and I think we need to be prepared for that. There are a whole list of issues that I sat down with Caltrans engineers over the years and they do something based on set procedure and that's what they do and all we can do is really make the request that they do their specific study and it is really to the book and I've seen what they look like and I've reviewed and I think we just go forward.”

Before the Board voted Supervisor Hamburg stared intently  at the youngish, crewcutted Caltrans rep:

“I hope you don't touch that speed limit in Philo,” declared Hamburg. “You will run into a huge amount of opposition in my district. Thank you.”

Supervisor Brown moved to send the letter. Supervisor Smith loudly and quickly seconded. The Board (Supervisor Pinches was absent on Tuesday) then voted 4-0 to send the letter to Caltrans.

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