How 55 M.P.H. and 65 M.P.H. Freeway Limits Are Set


Dear Street Smart:

Can you explain why non-interstate freeways in California continue to limit speeds to 55 m.p.h.? My understanding is that the 55 speed limit was set by Congress back in 1973 or 1974, but when it was rescinded about 10 years later, it applied only to interstate highways.

I thought states were subsequently given the option of raising the limits on freeways with engineering comparable to the interstate system. Yet driving on 101, I found 55 m.p.h. still the legal limit (though the citizenry has evidently done a little de facto adjusting upward on its own), and I suspect that may be the case for the 99 Freeway up the valley. Why has the state not brought uniformity at 65 m.p.h. for rural freeways?

John Wilson, Costa Mesa

About five years ago, the federal government revised an earlier law that set the national maximum speed at 55 m.p.h., said Steve Kohler, a California Highway Patrol spokesman in Sacramento. The new law allowed states to raise the speed limit to 65 m.p.h. on certain rural freeways as long as they still met criteria established by the federal government, he said.


In California, Caltrans and the CHP got together and looked at stretches of highway where they thought they could safely raise the speed limit, Kohler said. Freeway design, traffic load and accident history were all considerations. After review, the speed limit on about 1,400 miles of freeway in California, both interstate and non-interstate, was raised to 65 m.p.h., he said.

Another deciding factor was freeway terrain and location. For example, most of the flat and rural Interstate 5 north of the Grapevine to the Oregon border is posted for 65 m.p.h., but the rural Interstate 80 between the California border and Reno is 55 m.p.h. because the terrain is mountainous and not as safe at higher speeds.

“We are always open to suggestions, but at this point, I doubt there will be a great deal more freeway miles added to the 65 m.p.h. category,” Kohler said. “It’s important to note that California cannot arbitrarily change the federal guidelines, which we have to meet for all freeways, not just interstates.”


Dear Street Smart:

Recently returning home on northbound Interstate 5, we came across a Ford Ranger pickup truck with one tail light out, driving erratically along the freeway in front of us. First, the driver went slow, then fast, then weaved in and out of heavy traffic, barely missing unsuspecting drivers. The driver apparently was under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

We were frightened to pass him, thinking it best to keep him in front of us, but we were frustrated by our inability to stop him. Another motorist was able to get behind the truck and flash his headlights and encourage the driver to pull over to the right of the road.

We thought this potentially dangerous situation had been diffused and continued traveling north, but several minutes later, we saw the pickup truck approaching us from the rear, still driving erratically. He passed us as we pulled far to the right out of his path.

We thought possibly he would be apprehended at the San Clemente Border Patrol checkpoint, but it wasn’t operating that Saturday night. Nor in this entire period were we lucky enough to see a California Highway Patrol officer.

What should we have done differently? Is there something we could have done to stop this?

R.E. Parker, San Clemente

According to the California Highway Patrol, it is never wise to do anything that could cause a problem between two drivers, especially if one of the drivers is in a large vehicle or if they are drunk.

If you see an erratic driver, a good rule of thumb is to pull back and allow a 5- to 6-second margin between you and that car, CHP spokesman Steve Kohler said. You should only pass an unsafe driver if you feel absolutely certain you can do so safely, he said.

Also, if you have a cellular phone, use it to call 911 and you will be connected to CHP dispatch, Kohler said. You can also pull off the road and get to the nearest phone. By calling 911, a CHP officer can often locate an unsafe driver based on your description of the vehicle and the location.

Another thing you can do is jot down the license plate number, date, time and location of the incident and mail it to the CHP. With this information they can notify the vehicle owner that their vehicle was observed driving in an unsafe manner. A law enforcement officer has to witness a moving violation firsthand to do anything about it, Kohler said.

As for CHP patrol power, in a 24-hour period, there are between 700 and 800 CHP officers canvassing 100,000 miles of roadway in California, which, however, has more than 25 million drivers, Kohler said. Because of the sheer numbers, the CHP does rely on motorists to alert them to unsafe conditions on the road.


Information on current and future transportation in Orange County will be on display during the Orange County Transportation Authority’s Transitions in Transit Fair. The fair will be held in front of the Nordstrom department store inside MainPlace/Santa Ana, during regular mall hours this Friday through Sunday.

Scale models of Measure M freeway projects will be available for viewing, as well as new transit vehicles, including a zero-emission electric bus that is currently in use. Another display will illustrate the promise of clean fuel buses and other efforts to reduce bus and train emissions. OCTA employees will also be on hand to answer questions.

Additional transportation mall fairs are planned at other Orange County locations. For information about the Transitions in Transit fair, call OCTA’s customer relations office at (714) 638-9000.