When is a 25 zone not a 25 zone?

I know a guy who got a warning for going 45 in a 55 zone. The officer thought he was giving a break to somebody going 20 over.

His city suffered from a delusion I’ve mentioned before, that speed limits are determined by corporate limits rather than by road conditions. That isn’t true in California, where the warning was given, or in Massachusetts, where I live.

The police officer saw a sign saying 25 on a street where traffic was much faster. But how did that sign get there?

There was no speed limit for that street in city ordinances. City policy was to pass ordinances only for major streets subject to the “speed trap” law. This was not a major street, so the City Council did not make an exception. Somebody told crews to post this street 25 like all the others. And that was wrong. Illegal, in fact.

The speed limit in California isn’t 25. It’s 25 in a residence or business district, and 55 on two lane roads outside of a business district, inside or outside city limits, unless altered based on an engineering study.

Details matter. A “business district” is lined with buildings close to the street with entrances facing the street. That’s the legal definition in California. A majority of the frontage is buildings within 75 feet of the street with entrances facing the street. Suburban office buildings surrounded by large parking lots do not make a business district.

This rule makes sense. A business district could have a lot of activity in the street. (Pedestrians are allowed to walk in the street, for example.) Office parks have widely spaced intersections with access roads.

Although there were business and residences near the street, they were not accessed from the street. They had driveways and private roads and parking lots. There was not enough residential frontage to make a residence district, and not enough eligible business frontage to make a business district.

But somebody decided, contrary to law, that the citywide speed limit was 25.

I’ve written before about the problem with citywide speed limits. They make police go where the danger is not. If the city speed limit is 30 mph for both alleys and limited access highways (which I’ve seen in New York) you aren’t going to see a cop watching the alley.

If the road had been posted with the legal speed limit, 55, police wouldn’t have bothered running speed traps there. If the city had altered the speed limit consistent with state law, the signs would have said 45. And police still wouldn’t have bothered.

The rule I described, it’s the road and not the border that matters, is not universal. Home rule cities in Colorado can make the citywide speed limit anything between 0 to 75. New York cities can set the speed limit to 30 within city limits.

Other states don’t give cities so much power.

Ask yourself more often, where did that speed limit sign come from? The answer might be “nowhere that matters, legally speaking.”

The opinions expressed in this post belong to the author and do not necessarily represent those of the National Motorists Association or the NMA Foundation. This content is for informational purposes and is not intended as legal advice. No representations are made regarding the accuracy of this post or the included links.

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