BILL ANALYSIS                                                                                                                                                                                                    

                                                                  AB 529
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          Date of Hearing:   April 11, 2011

                               Bonnie Lowenthal, Chair
                     AB 529 (Gatto) - As Amended:  March 24, 2011
          SUBJECT  :  Vehicles: speed limits

           SUMMARY  :  Requires the California Department of Transportation 
          (Caltrans) to revise the California Manual on Uniform Traffic 
          Control Devices (CMUTCD), as prescribed.  Specifically,  this 
          bill  :  

          1)Requires that Caltrans revise the CMUTCD, as it read on 
            January 12, 2012, to allow local authorities to round speed 
            limits down to within 5 miles per hour (mph) of the 85th 
            percentile in cases where speeds of free-flowing traffic where 
            speeds would otherwise be rounded up.

          2)Prohibits a local authority from petitioning Caltrans to 
            reduce the speed limit by an additional 5 mph in cases where 
            speed limits were rounded down to within 5 mph of the 85th 
            percentile when they would have otherwise been rounded up.  

          3)Specifies that if the CMUTCD requires a local authority to 
            round down the speed limit, the local authority may petition 
            Caltrans for an additional 5 mph decrease as is currently 
            provided for.  

          4)Makes related, clarifying amendments.  

           EXISTING LAW  :  

          1)Establishes prima facie speed limits for specified 
            circumstances and types of roadways, as follows:  

             a)   15 mph when traversing a railway grade crossing, when 
               crossing an intersection if the view is unclear or 
               obstructed, or when driving in an alley; and,

             b)   25 mph on any highway, other than a state highway, that 
               is in any business district or residence district, as 
               defined, in a school zone, or in an area with facilities 
               primarily used by senior citizens.  


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          2)Permits Caltrans and local agencies to change prima facie 
            speed limits if done so in accordance with an engineering and 
            traffic survey (ETS).  An ETS measures prevailing vehicular 
            speeds and safety-related factors including accident records 
            and highway, traffic, and roadside conditions not readily 
            apparent to the driver.  Local authorities may also consider 
            such factors as pedestrian and bicyclist safety and 
            residential density when conducting an ETS.  

          3)Makes it unlawful for a driver of a vehicle to fail to obey a 
            sign or signal defined as regulatory in the federal Manual of 
            Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD) or the 
            Caltrans-approved supplement to that manual (i.e., the 

           FISCAL EFFECT  :  Unknown

           COMMENTS  :  In California, as in many other states in the 
          country, posted speed limits are used to regulate speed on 
          streets and highways.  Speed limits enhance safety in two ways.  
          First, by establishing an upper bound on allowable speeds, speed 
          limits help to reduce both the probability and severity of 
          collisions.  Second, speed limits serve a coordinating function 
          such that the limit is set at a speed at which the majority of 
          drivers tend to drive, thereby reducing dispersion in driving 
          speed and the risk of conflict with another vehicle.  Speed 
          limits, when appropriately set; also provide a basis for speed 

          A speed limit is generally set at or near the 85th percentile of 
          the prevailing speed (i.e., the speed which is exceeded by 15% 
          of motorists) as measured by an ETS.  In cases where the 85th 
          percentile speed is not an increment of 5 mph, a jurisdiction 
          rounds the speed limit to the closest 5 mph increment.  For 
          example, if the survey shows an 85th percentile speed of 34 mph, 
          the speed limit will be set at 35 mph.  The CMUTCD specifies 
          that a jurisdiction may lower that speed limit by 5 mph (i.e., 
          to 30 mph in the example) if safety-related factors suggest that 
          a lower speed is warranted.  The jurisdiction cannot, however, 
          lower the speed limit by more than 5 mph, regardless of 
          additional safety factors.  According to Caltrans, California is 
          the only state in the nation that allows for a 5-mile reduction 
          in speed limit after rounding to the nearest 5 mph increment 


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          closest to the 85th percentile.  

          The 85th percentile was found by empirical studies, to be the 
          speed the safe and prudent speed at which 85% of motorists 
          drive.  Studies have shown that setting speed limits levels 
          lower than the 85th percentile make lawbreakers out of otherwise 
          law-abiding citizens and can engender disrespect for the law.  

          The process for setting speed limits is guided by federal 
          standards contained in the National MUTCD.  Any change to the 
          process in California must be approved by the Federal Highway 
          Administration as being "in substantial compliance" with the 
          National MUTCD.  Caltrans is responsible for maintaining the 
          guidance and standards in the CMUTCD and receives input on 
          changes to the manual from the California Traffic Control 
          Devices Committee (CTCDC), an advisory body convened by Caltrans 
          and comprised primarily of public works directors and engineers 
          and traffic engineers representing local jurisdictions.  

          The process for setting speed limits has experienced modest 
          changes since 1996.  In 1996, speed limits were set at the first 
          five mph increment below the 85th percentile, a process that put 
          downward pressure on posted speed limits.  The speed limit could 
          then be lowered an additional 5 mph if engineering judgment 
          determines that the traffic safety needs of the community 
          indicates a need for a further reduction.  

          In 2004, California revised its process to conform more closely 
          to federal standards by providing that the speed limit should be 
          set at the nearest 5 mph increment of the 85th percentile.  

           The distinction between "within" and "nearest" holds great 
          weight  :  "Nearest" indicates that the speed limit may be rounded 
          above or below.  For example, if the 85th percentile is 34 mph, 
          the nearest 5 mph increment and thus the posted speed limit 
          would be 35 mph.  "Within," on the other hand, allows local 
          jurisdictions with an 85th percentile speed of 34 mph to round 
          down and post the speed limit at 30 mph.  

          After the 2004 change, many speed limits were being raised after 
          applying the "nearest 5 mph increment" criteria.  In response to 
          raising speed limits, Caltrans found that many jurisdictions 
          would then apply the additional 5 mph reduction without 
          appropriate justification.  Without justification for lowering 
          speed limits, speeding tickets were often not upheld in court if 


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          the presiding official found that the speed limit was set below 
          the 85th percentile.   

          For the past two years, CTCDC has evaluated whether further 
          changes to the CMUTCD regarding the process for setting speed 
          limits were warranted.  On May 15, 2009, Caltrans adopted two 
          policy changes for setting speed limits, as follows:  

          1)Rather than guiding local jurisdictions to set the speed 
            limits at the nearest 5 mph, the California MUTCD now requires 

          2)If the 5 mph reduction is applied, the ETS shall document in 
            writing the conditions and justification for the reduced speed 
            limit and be approved by a registered Civil or Traffic 

          The setting of an unreasonable speed limit is called a speed 
          trap.  The Legislature has declared a strong public policy 
          against the use of speed traps, to the extent that citations 
          issued where a speed trap is found to exist, are likely to be 
          dismissed, particularly if radar enforcement methods are used.  
          Traffic engineers and local jurisdictions have been encouraged 
          by the Legislature and the courts towards setting and 
          maintaining local speed limits such that speed limits are set 
          carefully, as justified by appropriate factors, to avoid 
          creating a speed trap.  

          According to the author, recent changes in the CMUTCD (i.e., 
          changes requiring jurisdiction to round to the nearest 5 mph 
          increment from the 85th percentile) will likely require speed 
          limits increases on 44% of local streets and roads in the City 
          of Glendale.  

          The city has raised similar concerns in the past.  In fact, it 
          was at least partially in response to the City of Glendale's 
          earlier attempt to statutorily change the way speed limits are 
          set via AB 766 (Krekorian) of 2009 that the Assembly 
          Transportation Committee and the Senate Committee on 
          Transportation and Housing held a joint hearing on speed limits 
          on October 28, 2009.  Substantive testimony was presented at the 
          hearing which demonstrated that the rate at which a driver 
          travels is independent of posted speed limits and that the 
          majority of motorists (85%) will drive at a rate of speed that 
          they feel is safe.  Also, the committee heard evidence that 


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          artificially lowing speed limits below the 85th percentile does 
          not reduce speeds but, instead, only increases violations and 
          can create a speed trap, which is viewed by some to be a method 
          by which municipalities raise revenue.  

          Further evidence was presented at the joint hearing that showed 
          that increased enforcement combined with traffic calming 
          measures (center islands, curb extensions, speed humps) was the 
          most effective method of changing driver behavior and reducing 
          driver speed.   
           Previous legislation:   

          SB 570 (Maldonado) of 2009 would have established a prima facie 
          speed limit of 40 miles per hour (mph) for any roadway where the 
          residential density is eight residential units or more fronting 
          the street.  That bill died in the Senate Governmental 
          Organization Committee.  

          AB 564 (Portantino) of 2009, would amend the definition of a 
          "local street or road," under the speed trap law, for the City 
          of Pasadena, to mean that it is either included in the latest 
          maps submitted to the federal highway Administration (FHWA) or 
          one that is not wider than 40 feet, longer than one-half mile, 
          or more than one lane in each direction.  That bill passed the 
          Assembly Transportation Committee, 8-3 on May 4, 2009, but was 
          subsequently gutted and amended to deal with use of monies in 
          the Substance Abuse Treatment Trust Fund.  

          AB 766 (Krekorian) of 2009 would have allowed a local city or 
          county to retain a prima facie speed limit on any street, other 
          than a state highway, if it makes a finding after a public 
          hearing and determines that a higher speed limit is not 
          appropriate and does not promote safety.  That bill died in the 
          Assembly Transportation Committee.  

          AB 2767 (Jackson), Chapter 45, Statutes of 2000, allowed local 
          authorities to consider residential density and bicycle and 
          pedestrian safety as additional factors in ETS conducted for 
          purposes of setting speed limits.   

          Double referred  :  This bill has also been referred to the 
          Committee on Local Government.  


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          City of Santa Rosa
          City of Glendale

          Amalgamated Transit Union
          California Teamsters Public Affairs Council

          Analysis Prepared by  :   Victoria Alvarez / TRANS. / (916) 319-