Speed limits are largely out of local officials' hands

In the wake of a grisly crash that killed five Irvine teens on Memorial Day, Newport Beach city officials said their hands are tied in efforts to slow down drivers through the more sprawling parts of town.

"We can't simply change the speed limits because we believe they're unsafe," Mayor Keith Curry said in a phone message Wednesday. "We have to set them in accordance with state law. Otherwise, we can't write enforceable tickets."

Added Councilwoman Leslie Daigle, in whose district the crash took place: "Establishing speed limits is not an arbitrary exercise."

But Monday's crash, coupled with the immediate area's history of high-profile fatal accidents, has thrown fresh light onto questions of whether drivers are moving too fast.

The stretch of Jamboree Road where the 2008 Infiniti veered onto a median and plowed into a tree, shearing the car in two and killing its five occupants, has a speed limit of 55 mph.

And authorities have stressed that the circumstances of the wreck were unusual — even on an urban arterial where drivers often edge 10 or more miles per hour over the posted limit.

"Excessive speed was definitely a factor in this tragic accident," said Newport Beach Police spokeswoman Jennifer Manzella. She said the department had no plans to beef up enforcement as a result of the accident.

Curry said he had been told that the driver may have been driving at more than 100 miles per hour, though police could not confirm how fast the 17-year-old driver, Abdulrahman M. Alyahyan, was going.

Manzella said the speed was "not typical" for the road.

So what is the typical speed?

The answer to that question, officials said, is largely what determines the speed limit — not a kind of ideal flow of traffic.

"It's funny about speed limits. You get complaints on both sides," Newport Beach Public Works Director Dave Webb said. "We get people that say it's too fast, and we get people that say it's too slow."

Webb said that's why the state mandates a speed limit determination procedure. Otherwise, if a city posts a low limit, it opens that jurisdiction up to charges of setting a speed trap, which would essentially make tickets written by local police unenforceable.

"The courts will throw [that ticket] out," Webb said. "Speeds are very tricky."

As a result, Curry said, attempts to lower speed limits on a city streets, like Spyglass Hill Road about a year ago, were largely quashed.

City spokeswoman Tara Finnigan wrote in an email that 85% of traffic on the manicured six-lane Jamboree traveled at or below 56 mph southbound, downhill, according to a speed survey conducted according to state law.

Typically, Webb said, those surveys are conducted every five to 10 years. The Newport Beach City Council approved its most recent study in 2011.

That 85th percentile number is rounded to the nearest five. Then, barring what Webb called "readily apparent issues," like blind corners, sharp curves, you have your speed limit.

None of those factored into the wreck Monday, however; the street slopes down in an almost straight path all the way to the bridge that leads to Balboa Island.

In something of a cruel irony, Webb said, the city's well-maintained major roads — which, like most roads and freeways, are designed to be safe for traffic moving faster than the speed limit — could actually be a draw for lead-foots looking for a place to flex.

Jamboree, which qualified as an urban arterial, sees an average daily traffic of about 32,000 in the area near the crash, which is a bit lower than nearby MacArthur Boulevard.

MacArthur sees on average 35,000 cars per day in its more crowded stretches as it approaches the intersection with East Coast Highway.

By comparison, Coast Highway in its more crowded spots sees between 50,000 and 60,000 average daily traffic, Webb estimated.

"The pavement's in good condition — the street's in great condition. Those large arterials are something, that when there's not a lot of traffic, can be attractive," he said. "But that happens everywhere."

And, he added, in today's powerful cars, "You can be going real fast, and you just don't realize it."

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