PD Editorial: For safer roads, lower speed limits

On Oct. 9, a motorist struck two pedestrians on Old Redwood Highway in Penngrove, killing one.|

Editorials represent the views of The Press Democrat editorial board and The Press Democrat as an institution. The editorial board and the newsroom operate separately and independently of one another.

On Oct. 9, a motorist struck two pedestrians on Old Redwood Highway in Penngrove, killing one. CHP said the driver was not under the influence of drugs or alcohol, nor was the driver speeding.

Yet in some sense speed was unavoidably a factor. Every driver who hits the speed limit on that stretch of road drives a bit too fast because an old California law inflates speed limits in many places. Localities finally have a chance to change that.

The law in question had a good intention. Back in the day, some cities and counties used artificially low speed limits to set up speed traps. Fines padded local coffers. State lawmakers — at the urging of frustrated motorists — ended the practice by linking the speed limit on a road to the typical speed of vehicles found in a traffic study. So, a wide straight road where people typically drive 50 mph could wind up with a speed limit of 50 mph or maybe 45 mph.

The problem is that the system led to speed creep. Set the speed limit at 45 mph, and drivers tend to go a bit faster. The next time engineers do a study, the speed limit probably needs to go up 5 mph. Rinse, repeat.

The speed limit on Old Redwood Highway recently increased to 50 mph, and many people drive even faster. The number of cars on the road has increased, too, thanks in part to residential growth in Rohnert Park. Some people use Old Redwood Highway as an alternative to Highway 101.

That frustrates many Penngrove residents. Old Redwood Highway might once have been a “highway,” but now it’s one of the main streets through their small community. Crossing on foot is dangerous, as last week’s tragedy demonstrated. Similar dangers exist for bicyclists. A modern road designed for alternative modes of transportation and safety it is not.

The good news is that the Legislature passed a law last year to make it easier for localities to impose slower speed limits, especially in places with identified dangers. A follow-up bill this year made some technical clarifications.

Under the new laws, localities may set speed limits 5 mph or 10 mph slower than would have been allowed previously. They still aren’t allowed to set up speed traps, but they are allowed to give greater weight to motorist, pedestrian and bicyclist safety.

Sonoma County, which has authority over Old Redwood Highway, should take a fresh look at the speed limit there under this new authority. The county has already authorized a traffic study in Penngrove along Railroad Avenue. County leaders should consider adding Old Redwood Highway to that study or start planning to launch another as soon as possible. It could give officials the data they need to satisfy the state for a speed reduction.

Local cities should jump on this opportunity, too. They’ve been stuck with state-mandated speed limits that are too high in some places. Now there is an opportunity to roll back speeds and make local roads safer for all users.

Safety advocates sometimes go overboard in their desire to stifle speeds, but a small reduction on appropriate corridors that will save lives is not overreach, it’s the new law.

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Editorials represent the views of The Press Democrat editorial board and The Press Democrat as an institution. The editorial board and the newsroom operate separately and independently of one another.

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