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Sounds crazy, but to crack down on speeding, LA must raise speed limits

Los Angeles police can only use radar guns like this one to enforce limits on streets that have been recently surveyed to determine average speeds. In some cases, that means speed limits would go up.
Los Angeles police can only use radar guns like this one to enforce limits on streets that have been recently surveyed to determine average speeds. In some cases, that means speed limits would go up.
James G via Flickr

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Los Angeles officials are looking to crack down on speeding as part of a citywide program to reduce traffic deaths, but a legal technicality is complicating those efforts.

The L.A. City Council's transportation committee on Wednesday heard an update on establishing speed limits on city streets. Police had been unable to issue speed tickets on many streets because under state law they can only use technology like radar guns if recent surveys show how quickly cars are driving on average.

As of last year, 80 percent of city streets hadn't been checked.

The good news is the city has been updating the surveys and now speeds on more than half the streets are enforceable again. The bad news: the surveys call for increases to speed limits in many places.

The limits are based on the speeds that 85 percent of drivers are going at, no matter how fast. That means upping the speed limit on 95 miles of road and lowering it on just 50 miles.

"This is the result of what has got to be the stupidest, most confounding state law I have ever experienced," said Councilman Mike Bonin, who chairs the transportation committee.

Other council members were similarly dismayed. Nury Martinez wondered how she would explain the higher speeds for some streets to concerned constituents.

She also asked that the L.A. Department of Transportation notify schools in areas where street speeds would be affected.

Under state law, speed limits can still be restricted to 25 miles per hour near schools regardless of prevailing speed surveys. But Martinez worried that adjacent streets outside the school zones could also impact children and their parents. 

Traffic enforcement is one of the key components of Vision Zero, an international initiative the city participates in that aims to eliminate fatalities, in large part by addressing the most dangerous driving behavior: speeding.

The transportation committee eventually supported the speed limit changes, with the hope that increased enforcement will catch the most dangerous drivers.

The proposed speed limits go next to the full council for a vote. Members of the transportation committee also plan to propose a resolution to challenge what many feel is a problematic state law.

The state law was originally intended to protect drivers from arbitrary "speed traps," usually in rural areas where jurisdictions sometimes set arbitrarily low speed limits to ticket drivers and raise revenue.

Councilman Paul Koretz suggested the council propose a revision of the law targeting only rural areas.