COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | LARRY STIRLING

California highways are one big speed trap

On a recent morning, I was tasked by wife Linda to deliver a load of flower arrangements she had spent hours preparing to a fellow Rotarian in La Jolla.

Driving north on Interstate 5, I was being careful with my driving so as not to spoil her important work.

I believed that I was driving slowly enough to safeguard the precious product when I looked at the speedometer and noticed that though I was being passed by every car on the road, I was still driving over the California state mandated 70-mph speed limit.

I wasn’t just being passed; I would estimate that the average speed on I-5 between Interstate 8 and the turnoff to La Jolla Parkway as well over 80 miles an hour.

And even that high-speed flow of traffic was punctuated by a nutcase driver snaking his way back and forth across traffic lanes to go even faster.

Because the mandated maximum freeway speed limit in California is a paltry 70 miles per hour (CVC 22356), nearly everyone of us, merely keeping up with the flow of traffic, is in violation of the maximum-speed limit and is inviting a citation-resulting fine starting at $150 and going up from there.

The legislative act of setting a maximum of 70 miles per hour in the face of the fact that anyone who goes that speed is in dire risk of being run off the road constitutes lousy public policy that should be repealed.

Highway speed limits should be set on the same basis as local speed limits, based on rational speed surveys and local safety factors; not one size fits all.

Failing to repeal that law makes the state Legislature and governor party to turning our freeways into what is legally defined in CVC 40802 as a speed limit unsupported by an "engineering and traffic study" and thus an illegal speed trap.

Let me explain. There are two histories that led us here, one for state highways and one for local streets and roads.

First, local streets. Contrary to what we have always assumed, a speed trap was not a cop hiding behind a billboard to clock us. An officer is entitled to sit anywhere he can observe traffic to enforce the law.

The notion of speed traps is actually sound public policy.

State governments received complaints that local communities astride thoroughfares would post ridiculously low speed limits with minimal signage, then pounce on out-of-town drivers as an easy source of revenue for their little burgs.

The states responded with restrictions on how low local agencies could post speed limits, requiring them, with exceptions, to not set the limit lower than the average speed of 85 percent of the drivers.

The law assumes that most, if not nearly all, of us want to drive and arrive safely at our destination and thus drive safely and sanely for conditions.

The 85 percent rule leaves a huge margin of safety, as no doubt the percent of safe drivers is much higher, and those marginal nutcases that endanger us all with their weaving in out of traffic at high speed are thankfully a small percentage that CHP cameras ought to record and then officers arrest.

Under this law, it is the wisdom of the driving public that sets the minimum speed limit, resulting in an adequate flow of traffic consistent with local safety concerns.

However, the state highway system has a different history and it is all bad.

Back in 1973, the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries shafted us by withholding oil to raise the prices, which helped support the spread of radical Islam throughout the world. In response, Congress, pretending to look busy in a crisis, passed the wholly unconstitutional National Maximum Speed Limit, the putative idea of which was to save oil imports.

The law was widely disobeyed (making it a terrible law per se) and it didn’t save any energy, nor would it have even if punctiliously obeyed.

I say "unconstitutional" because issues of public health and safety reside in the states, so the federal government had no authority and no business setting speed limits for remote highways that might be right for crowded cities.

Embarrassed, Congress tinkered with the law in 1987 and again in 1988. They finally threw in the towel in 1995, admitting the plenary authority of the states.

Still concerned about energy consumption, the liberal California Legislature made the same mistake as the Congress by slapping an arbitrary, statewide 70 mph limit without abiding by its own "speed-trap law."

The 70-mph speed limit is not sustainable by any speed survey and thus makes nearly every state highway a speed trap.

Worse, the law creates endless conflict when law abiders are bullied by the majority that knows it is a stupid law and there are not enough CHP officers to enforce it.

Thus, when the law is enforced, it is arbitrarily depriving Californians of predictability about their driving conduct. This is an unjust law with unjust enforcement.

I do not advocate Montana’s former wide-open spaces, no speed-limit law. But I do admire Germany’s variable speed-limit law.

Their road computers constantly analyze the flow of traffic and post current speed limits based on traffic conditions.

There is no reason why, with my invention of traffic command centers, that we cannot do the same thing so that most of us are not violating the law every time we get on the freeway.

Why not, senators and Assembly members? Aren’t you supposed to adopt "just" laws?

The California maximum speed limit law is not one of them.


Stirling, a former U.S. Army officer, has been elected to the San Diego City Council, state Assembly and state Senate. He also served as a municipal and superior court judge in San Diego. Send comments to larry.stirling@sddt.com. Comments may be published as Letters to the Editor.

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Robert W Orr, MD 12:00am September 3, 2015

I totally agree with you. In states where the speed limit has been increased to 75 or 80 there have been no increase in fatalities, actually in some cases the opposite. In addition compliance with the speed limit is well over 80%. I know many CHP officers personally who feel the speed limit is too low.It should be increased to at least 75 mph. and if traffic conditions are right perhaps even higher. Jus this morning on the commute to work on the 15 north of Escondido all traffic was doing 80mph+ along with a CHP officer who was in the middle of traffic. The question is what can we do to get the poiliticians to change this.

JG 12:00am August 14, 2015

The towing speed limit is a federal mandate and has nothing to do with CA. The maximum speed limit is 70 in rural areas and 65 anywhere else. San Diego county in the 80s pushed to have as much of the county at 65 mph speed limits with the aide of CHP and few other agencies right after the speed laws went up in California. CHP is heavily against changing the speed limits as a safety issue. The appeals court beginning in 2010 looked at travel data for California and decided in 2012 based on a number of factors including CHP concerns not to raise the speed limits. The law will only likely change under a referendum.

John Comly 12:00am August 13, 2015

I agree about using a "German" variability method. But it seems to offer offenders more excuses (e.g. "Last time I looked it said '85'). I disagree with repealing or systematically applying a police practice of ignoring a statutory maximum. Then the dispute with law enforcement is whether the driver was heeding the default of not driving unsafely. This provides enforcement too much discretion.

John 12:00am August 12, 2015

I agree completely with Larry. Long desert stretches of I-40, I-10 & I-8 as well as many areas of the 5 should have speed limits posted higher than 70 mph (as should the 15 between Barstow and Las Vegas. One thing Larry failed to mention is the ridiculously low "anything in tow" speed limits here in California. Those limits too should be increased above 55 mph.