A proposal calling for speed-limit increases on 19 road segments in the city is headed to the Los Altos City Council for review Tuesday.
The city announced the proposal last week, which calls for 5 mph speed increases on 18 of the 19 affected road segments, including portions of Fremont Avenue and Grant and Covington roads. One segment – a stretch of Grant – calls for a 10 mph increase. (See the chart on page 6 for a complete list of proposed speed-limit increases.)
The proposal comes after city engineers conducted a traffic survey from October 2012 to January 2013 as part of a California Vehicle Code (CVC) requirement that local municipalities re-evaluate nonstatutory speed limits at intervals of five, seven and 10 years.
The study, according to Los Altos Transportation Project Manager Cedric Novenario, is necessary for another reason – radar speed enforcement by police.
Novenario noted that CVC regulations mandate that each municipality conduct a valid traffic study – and approve any speed-limit adjustments as a result of it – before law enforcement officials may use radar technology to enforce posted speeds.
“If you were to get a ticket in any jurisdiction, you have the right to ask for the engineering and traffic survey, which essentially proves the posted speed limits on the street,” said Novenario, who added that the council opted to reject speed-limit increases for most of the 40-plus road segments studied during the last survey in 2007. “Without this valid survey, a ticketed person (through radar enforcement) can go to court and get that ticket tossed if the study is out of date.”
Los Altos Police Chief Tuck Younis added that using radar technology is “the safest and most effective way to do enforcement.”
The 2012-2013 study, Novenario said, measured a random sampling of 100 motorists’ speeds along 23 road segments. Each segment’s speed limit, he said, is later determined by rounding to the nearest 5 mph increment of the 85th percentile speed – the top speed motorists can safely travel down a particular roadway.
A more conservative approach
Novenario said a California Manual for Uniform Traffic Control Devices regulation offers some flexibility to city engineers by proposing speed limits at a maximum of 5 mph under the 85th percentile speed. Engineers will typically take into consideration road conditions and other factors – such as the level of pedestrian and bicycle activity – before setting a limit, he added.
As an example, Novenario pointed to the study’s proposal for a 5 mph bump (from 30 to 35 mph) along El Monte Avenue – between Foothill Expressway and the city’s southern limit – despite measuring 85th percentile speeds of 42.5 mph (rounded down to 40 mph).
“Backing off 5 mph is kind of at the engineer’s discretion,” said Novenario, adding that he ultimately opted to move forward with a more conservative approach of 5 mph increases for the majority of roads in question. “You really have to know the area you’re dealing with first.”
Still, Novenario acknowledged that some residents might not react favorably to the proposed speed-limit increases.
“The most common concern is that if you raise the speed limit, drivers (violating the limit) are just going to push their speeds higher and higher,” he said.
With this in mind, Novenario was quick to point out that the city council ultimately has the final say in setting city speed limits as low as they want – and that’s where the quirk of the CVC comes into play. Without approving the proposed increases, he noted, police are limited to enforcing speeds through the “pace method” – which requires patrol officers to trail behind a violator to measure speed over a fixed distance.
“If the council doesn’t go with the recommended (speed-limit increases),” he said, “the police can’t enforce with radar.”