A Professional Sloganeer in Los Angeles

It made national news. Brian Gallagher, public relations engineer for the City of Los Angeles, dumped a giant pile of pretend engineering on the LA City Council. Councilors complained it wasn’t fake enough but approved it anyway. Depending on the spin of your news source you may have read “LA eliminates speed traps” or “baby-killers in Sacramento strike again.”

California’s speed trap law prohibits most speed limit enforcement on major city streets unless the speed limit is based on legitimate traffic safety concerns. Due to a combination of laziness and politics LA let its speed limit authorizations expire and has been playing catch up. Recently the city council accepted recommendations for minor changes in speed limits to try make them enforceable. I read the 219 page report so you don’t have to. Lucky for me, it’s cut-and-paste of the same language for each street.

Under the law, speed limits must be close to the 85th percentile speed of free-flowing traffic. They can be reduced slightly based on factors not readily apparent to drivers. Drivers can see if there are houses or the road is narrow and they slow down on their own. Most importantly, they can’t see the accident rate.

In rare, extreme cases, the speed limit can be 7 mph below the 85th percentile speed. An honest engineering study — a professional engineer has to approve the limit — will result in speed limits close to the 85th percentile speed on most streets.

I already knew LA didn’t want an honest study. An earlier newspaper report said city policy was to apply the maximum 7 mph reduction to all streets. Under those circumstances the “engineering” report becomes an exercise in making up excuses. Indeed, 75 of the 76 street reports were excuses for maximum speed limit reduction the law would allow if the street were actually dangerous. The last reads like an honest study. I suppose there was no call from a city councilor instructing the engineering department what the result of that speed study had to be.

Here’s a typical segment study. Page 80: Overland Avenue between Pico Boulevard and Palms Boulevard. This is a safe street with less than half the city average accident rate. No special conditions not visible to drivers. There are sidewalks on both sides so pedestrians do not need to walk in the street. 85th percentile is 46 mph.

The rest of the language is boilerplate. Over and over “there have been (number) collisions involving pedestrians or bicyclists on the High Injury Corridor that includes (street segment).” It doesn’t say there were collisions on that segment. As noted, the accident rate on Overland Avenue is below the city average. There were accidents along a corridor. Maybe near Overland Avenue, maybe on a street that connects to a street that connects to a street… Every street in the city, safe or not, could be put into a High Injury Corridor by connecting it to a street that meets some arbitrary threshold.

The report concludes, as it does for other safe segments, “a 5 mile per hour reduction in the posted speed limit to 40 miles per hour is justified to improve corridor safety consistent with Vision Zero efforts”. Approved by Brian Gallagher.

When you see “Vision Zero” on an engineering document it’s not an engineering document. He’s not practicing engineering. He’s practicing sloganeering.

Mayor Garcetti is allowed to practice sloganeering. Mr. Gallagher, P.E., is supposed to practice engineering and has a duty to protect the public from unsafe traffic control practices and the mayor’s whims.

There’s more. Fractions are not rounded off to whole numbers when doing so would show that a speed limit reduction is excessive. (See 7th Avenue and 54th Street.) A speed limit 10 miles per hour below the 85th percentile speed is justified by the fact that down the street the speed limit is only 5 miles per hour below. I explained why that’s wrong in my post about Cambpell. Two speed limits were changed for no reason because the streets were classified as “local”. I explained why that’s wrong in my post about Pasadena. A speed limit set by an engineering study can only be changed by an engineering study.

In California traffic court the burden is on the prosecution to show the speed limit is valid. Quite a few of these studies are invalid in ways that you can probably explain to a judge. Like the boilerplate Vision Zero language I quoted based on a finding that some other street had pedestrian accidents.

Read as a whole, the report shows that Los Angeles is not basing speed limits on a proper exercise of engineering judgment. City officials are open about the fact that they’re only doing this so they can write more speeding tickets. It’s not about safety, it’s about Vision Zero. Pedestrian deaths increased 82% following launch of the slogan and they’re going double or nothing.

In California it’s illegal to enforce speed limits in violation of the speed trap law. That doesn’t only mean you win in traffic court. They weren’t supposed to pull you over in the first place. Perhaps a local lawyer can look into the city’s policy of encouraging civil rights violations.

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