Radar Gun Law Triggering Hikes in Speed Limits : Safety: Rule focuses on prevailing traffic pace. It's tough to defend and maddening for residents worried about speeders.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Randy Overholt has witnessed several accidents on the corner near his Porter Ranch home, including one that ended with a truck careening through the shrubs of his front yard.

So it seemed to defy logic when city workers last year replaced the 25 m.p.h. speed limit signs on his street--Vanalden Avenue between Wilbur Avenue and Devonshire Street--with 30 m.p.h. signs.

"Some people are literally doing freeway speeds," he said, only moments after shouting at a car squealing past his house. "I yell at them because they go so fast that they can't stop for a child."

The increase on Overholt's street is the result of a 1972 state law that says that in order for police to use radar guns to catch speeders, posted speed limits must reflect prevailing traffic speeds.

Since 1991, this has led the city of Los Angeles to increase limits on at least 55 streets while lowering the limit on only five, according to a review of city records.

Such increases have perturbed Councilman Hal Bernson, who last year persuaded the City Council to ask state lawmakers to change the law so that speeds can be set 15 m.p.h. below prevailing speeds.

In his motion, Bernson said the speeds traveled on surface streets are rising faster because commuters are increasingly using streets as alternatives to freeways and major thoroughfares. The state has not yet acted on that request.

Although the increases usually only raise the limit 5 m.p.h.--most commonly from 25 to 30 m.p.h.--it is a maddening policy for residents already upset about motorists speeding.

"This place is like a raceway," said Pier Spaccia, who has lived across the street from Overholt, in an otherwise quiet residential area, for two years. The fear of speeders has prevented Spaccia from letting his five children play in the street or even on the sidewalk.

Spaccia didn't realize the speed limit had been increased, but said it didn't make sense to him. "Whenever you raise the limit, they are going to go 10 m.p.h. over the limit," he said.

Police and city traffic engineers say it is a sensible law that isn't always easy to defend, especially to those demanding that something be done about speeders. The increases in speed, they say, are the reasonable cost of using radar.

"It's a real difficult thing to explain to the citizen groups," said James H. Sherman, the city traffic engineer who approves such increases.

Los Angeles Police Officer Chuck Massar, who runs the classes that teach LAPD officers to use radar guns, also knows how difficult it can be to sell residents on the benefits of this seemingly illogical policy.

He recalls that a few years ago a hillside neighborhood fought for two years a plan to increase the speed limit on a road from 25 to 30 m.p.h.

The dispute was so contentious that even today Massar said he would rather not name the neighborhood for fear of sparking further debate.

But in the law's defense, he said, once the increase was in place, police were able to enforce the limit with radar and "lo and behold, they found that we enforced it very tightly."

The law was designed to make sure cities and police do not conspire to set up "speed traps" where radar-packing cops take cover along streets with artificially low speed limits and rake in the fines.

The process usually begins with a complaint: a resident or business owner asks police to crack down on speeders on a city street. To ensure that speed limits are fair, the city must conduct a survey of traffic speeds during the past five years before police are allowed to use radar to enforce the posted limit.

To conduct a survey, transportation officials sit in unmarked cars during the lunch hour on weekdays and use radar guns to measure the speed of passing traffic. The speed limit is then set within 5 m.p.h. of the speed driven by 85% of drivers, under the assumption that 85% of motorists drive safely.

If they want to use radar, cities cannot set the limit lower than the flow of traffic unless it is warranted by such road conditions as narrow or curved lanes or high pedestrian traffic.

The city could avoid conducting surveys and thus eliminate the chances of increasing the speed limit by simply halting the use of radar guns. But police say radar is the most accurate and safest way to gauge speeds. The only other alternatives police have for tracking speeders are visual estimation--a method that can be flawed and challenged in court--or following the speeding car, which increases the chance of an accident.

Massar said the surveys allow police to use radar on more streets. Today, radar is used on more than 500 streets in Los Angeles, up from only 88 streets in 1983, he said.

But some residents who live on streets where the limits have been increased say they haven't noticed greater enforcement of speed laws since the new speed-limit signs went up.

Marvin Ford lives on a section of Budlong Avenue near USC, where the city last year increased the speed limit from 25 to 30 m.p.h. But he says it seems that speeders hardly ever are cited on his street.

"They drive like it's a runway here," he said. "I wish they would enforce it. There is a school right around the corner, too."

In the next month or so, the City Council is expected to increase the speed limit from 35 to 40 m.p.h. on Hayvenhurst Avenue in Encino, between Burbank and Ventura boulevards.

But some residents on that street say traffic already whizzes by so fast they can barely get out of their driveways in the morning. An increase in the limit, they say, will only make matters worse.

"I hate this street, I really hate it," said Maxine Easton, who has lived on Hayvenhurst for 29 years. She suggested the city reduce the speed limit--not increase it--and install a traffic signal on a troublesome nearby intersection.

Easton's neighbor, Sabina Gram, who has lived on Hayvenhurst for 41 years, has a more drastic solution: "Tell them to close it down."

But not everyone agrees that faster speeds lead to more problems.

Jim Baxter, president of the National Motorists Assn.--a Wisconsin-based motorists rights group that was instrumental in increasing rural highway speed limits to 65 m.p.h.--said allowing the prevailing traffic speeds to decide the limits is fair because most motorists drive safely.

"Studies show that posting speed limits at the 85% level will result in the maximum safety benefit," he said.

Furthermore, Baxter said setting speed limits that are too slow can cause accidents because faster motorists try to pass up slower automobiles.

"The vast majority of people who get in their cars do not want to hurt anybody. They drive safely," he said. "The source of aggravation (for residents) are those who grossly exceed the speed limit."

Up to Speed

A sampling of streets in the San Fernando Valley that have had speed limit changes in 1993-94 is shown below. "Critical speed" refers to the speed at which 85% of motorists drive on that street. Accidents occurred over a two-year period.

Existing Adopted Critical limit limit speed (m.p.h.) (m.p.h.) (m.p.h.) Accidents Valjean Ave. 30 35 43-46 6 Between Saticoy Ave. and Victory Blvd. Ventura Canyon Ave. 35 25 27-28 31 Between Saticoy St. and Woodman Ave. Vanalden Ave. 25 30 36-39 4 Between Wilbur Ave. and Devonshire St. Saticoy St. 35 35 36-37 76 Between Clybourn Ave. & Whitsett Ave. San Fernando Road 50 45 44-45 72 Between Sepulveda Blvd. & Hubbard St. Lanark Street None 30 38-40 12 Between Wheatland posted Ave. & Hollywood Way Glenoaks Blvd. None 35 41-43 77 Between Foothill posted Blvd. & Hubbard St.

Source: City of Los Angeles Dept. of Transportation

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