Assembly Bill 43 would allow Caltrans and local authorities more flexibility to set and reduce speed limits to as low as 15 mph for safer streets.
By Seleta Reynolds
Seleta Reynolds serves as general manager for the Los Angeles Department of Transportation, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jeffrey Tumlin, Special to CalMatters
Jeffrey Tumlin serves as the director of transportation for the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, email@example.com.
Each year, nearly 4,000 Californians die in car crashes. More than three times that number are severely injured. The difference between death and injury is speed — and with every mile per hour, the risk only grows.
Nine out of 10 people survive when hit by a vehicle going 20 mph. But only one in 10 survives at 40 mph. The data is clear — speed kills. One way to improve safety is to give cities and decision-makers a better way to set speeds. The Legislature is considering a change in law that would give cities more tools to prioritize safe speed limits.
We carefully engineer streets with safety, accessibility and efficiency in mind, but to be enforceable, legal speed limits are set by state law that uses a measure of how fast people drive. This is like setting your teenager’s curfew, but changing it each night based on when they get home.
Over the last five years, this law forced Los Angeles to increase speed limits on nearly 200 miles of streets, based on persistent speeding — without making design changes to justify faster driving.
In 2019, concerned residents opposed a speed limit increase along Olympic Blvd. in Los Angeles so city officials chose to keep the existing, slower limit. Unfortunately, that made the speed unenforceable. Months later, an unchecked speeding driver struck and killed a young woman on this same corridor. Unbelievably, to protect another family from this pain, we then had to raise the speed limit on this deadly street to hold future reckless drivers accountable. The catch-22 system for setting speeds forces cities to make an impossible choice between safe or enforceable speed limits.
High speeds not only kill 400 people in the Bay Area and 250 in Los Angeles each year, they disproportionately take lives in low-income, Black and Latinx communities.
In San Francisco, unsafe speed has been a top factor in fatal crashes annually since 2014, when we adopted Vision Zero, a data-driven approach to reducing traffic deaths. In 2020, unsafe speed ranked first — even with less driving during the pandemic, fast fatal crashes increased 250%. In a city with less than 1% of the population experiencing homelessness, 20% of these fatal crash victims had no fixed address.
In Los Angeles, 2020 saw deaths and serious injuries decrease everywhere except in South Los Angeles, where they increased by 23%. Speeding tickets can be expensive, especially for communities already burdened by poverty, and payment programs are critical to help those who cannot pay fines or risk losing their license. We cannot afford, however, to keep the status quo when the price is lives lost or forever changed.
Our departments follow engineering best-practices and install speed humps, traffic circles and bike lanes to slow down speeds. These treatments work in precise locations, but are not one-size-fits-all solutions. They also are expensive, time consuming and require community support.
While we must continue to pursue these engineering fixes, we cannot lose more lives as we secure enough resources to complete these projects. Allowing cities to set commonsense speed limits is a long overdue, complementary tool to prioritize safety.
Assembly Bill 43 puts an end to rising speed limits that reward bad driving behavior, and allows cities to lower speed limits on our busiest, most complex streets — as low as 15 mph. It will allow our cities to prioritize setting safer speed limits on our deadliest streets, protect our most vulnerable roadway users, and ensure the areas where people walk and bike to shops and restaurants are safe and comfortable.
It is a commonsense law that will help us set the rules needed to protect public safety, create safer streets and save lives.