Santa Barbara police are currently unable to enforce the speed limit on most city streets, even while residents all over the city demand slower traffic through their neighborhoods. Police say they can’t do their job because, according to a federal law, traffic speeds on certain types of streets – all of those running north and south downtown, as well as many running east and west – must be resurveyed every five years to determine the prevailing speed before police can enforce it using radar. According to David Pritchett, vice chair of the city’s Transportation and Circulation Committee, this is a “legal artifact” originally intended to prohibit police from establishing speed traps – that is, raising funds by setting speeds artificially low so they can raise revenue by writing a lot of tickets. The city’s current surveys were done at about the same time five and six years ago, so those are due to expire soon.
Banned from using radar on such streets, police can still clock speeds and issue tickets that will hold up in court by using the “pacing’ method, according to Officer Todd Stoney, which entails following behind or alongside the suspected speeder at the same speed they are going. However, as Stoney explained to the City Council on September 21, this is not the safest thing to do: You then have two speeding cars instead of one.
In response, the Transportation Division of the city’s Public Works Department recommended to the City Council that the city recategorize as many of its streets as possible as “local streets.” This would allow the city to set its own radar-enforceable basic speed limit of 25 miles per hour.
Currently, most city streets are classified as “arterial” or “collector” streets. Besides triggering the need for surveys to establish their prevailing speeds, streets so classified are eligible for Federal Transportation Program funding that helps with construction, improvements, and maintenance. Transportation engineer supervisor Dru Van Hengel told the council that she asked City of Ventura engineers how much they lost when they made the transition to local streets, and that Ventura characterized the net loss as “negligible.” The staff’s written report to the council noted that the county receives about $4 million in such funds annually, which are distributed among 2,464 lanes miles, including 233 federal lane miles within the City of Santa Barbara.
The City Council voted 5-2 to proceed with a reclassification study, with Roger Horton and Dale Francisco in the minority. Converting the streets could take as little as one to two years, Van Hengel said. Meanwhile, traffic surveys are proceeding, as a result of which the same council majority also adopted new speed limits for De La Vina Street-where the limit will be raised from 25 miles per hour currently to 30 miles per hour-and for Haley Street, where the speed limit will decrease to 25 miles per hour from 30 mph currently.
The formula used to determine these limits is to take the speed at which 85 percent of drivers are traveling, and adjust to the nearest five-mile-per-hour increment. For example, if the vast majority of drivers are traveling at or below 33 miles per hour, the speed limit becomes 35 miles per hour. Beyond that, traffic engineers can make a five-mile-per-hour adjustment downward to account for special considerations including hazards that drivers might not be aware of such as hidden side streets. The assumption is that most drivers are “reasonable and prudent,” but Van Hengel said that assumption “may be subject to scrutiny considering what we see drivers doing while we’re out there doing these surveys.”
On Haley, the prevailing speed was 31 miles per hour, so 30 miles per hour was the nearest increment but engineers took the option to reduce it by another five mph based the Haley’s higher than average collision rate of 2.65 per million vehicle miles traveled. The average for a comparable street is 1.77. On De la Vina, instead of the 35 miles per hour that the prevailing speed would have indicated, they set the limit at 30 for the safety of pedestrians and bicyclists.
Although Francisco, before casting his vote against the staff recommendation, explained that “Haley seems fine,” a sentiment echoed by other councilmembers who drive the one-way street regularly, the councilmembers also concurred with Councilmember Das Williams’ rejoinder that he would prefer to err on the side of safety.