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    Let’s Set Speed Limits to Enhance Public Safety

    By Rebecca Kaplan, Oakland City Councilmember At-Large–

    On June 15, 2021, the Oakland City Council unanimously passed my resolution in support of Assembly Bill 43 (Friedman), which will provide more tools to local governments in our efforts to reduce speeding on our streets and roads. AB43 successfully passed through the Transportation Committee and now is up for consideration by the entire Assembly.

    The method to set speed limits doesn’t promote public safety. California has based its speed limits using a decades-old process known as the 85th percentile. Traffic surveyors would measure the speed drivers were driving at and set the speed limit to reflect what 85% of drivers were driving at. At the time this was believed to be the safest speed. Current speed limits are not set based on safety, but rather on the speed at which driver’s feel comfortable driving,and transportation experts today widely reject the notion that the 85th percentile speed is the safest speed.

    AB43 would require traffic surveyors to take into account the presence of vulnerable groups, including children, seniors, the unhoused, and persons with disabilities when setting speed limits. The bill permits cities to lower speed limits beyond the 85th percentile on streets with high injuries and fatalities, and ensures they will never again have to raise a speed limit on any road if there have been no design changes. It also limits the need for updated traffic surveys on certain streets. AB43 would also provide for greater flexibility in setting school speed limits to protect children.

    Years of national research, the laws of physics, and common sense all point to an established fact about street safety: the faster people drive, the more dangerous and deadly our roads become. However, California state law, reflecting the so-called 85th percentile methodology, limits cities’ ability to set safe vehicle speed limits on their most dangerous streets.

    This law requires that, if as few as one in six drivers speed on a given street, then a city must raise the speed limit on that street. This law effectively sets speed limits based on drivers breaking the law, and it forces speed limits to match observed driver behavior, instead of bringing driver behavior in line with safety goals and the law. Raising speed limits to match the 85th percentile speed results in unintended consequences, such as higher operating speeds and more serious and fatal traffic crashes.

    AB 43 would implement several modest changes providing cities some additional flexibility under the 85th percentile statutes, in line with the recent recommendations of the California State Transportation Agency’s Zero Traffic Fatalities Task Force. These improvements to the 85th percentile method include granting local agencies additional flexibility to establish lower speed limits in areas and on defined types of streets where the most vulnerable road users are the most active, and where the most crashes occur.

    In Oakland, speeding is the primary collision factor in approximately 25% of traffic deaths, and a contributing factor to many additional severe and fatal crashes. AB 43 is a smart, prevention-focused strategy to save lives in communities across California.

    Councilmember At-Large and Council President Rebecca Kaplan was elected in 2008 to serve as Oakland’s citywide Councilmember; she was re-elected in 2016 and 2020. She also serves on the Alameda County Transportation Commission (ACTC). Follow Councilmember Kaplan on Twitter @Kaplan4Oakland (https://twitter.com/Kaplan4Oaklanda) and Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/Kaplan4Oakland/).

    Published on August 26, 2021