Another not-a-school-zone speed limit

An NMA member asked a question a lot more of us should be asking: is this really a school zone? As you enter Daly City, California from the east the speed limit on the four lane road drops from 45 to a 25 mph school zone.

Except it isn’t a school zone: there is no school zone sign and there is no school.

School zone signs have to say when the school zone is active. In California they must use the exact words “when children are present.” The supposed school zone sign does not say that, so it isn’t a school zone sign. And it’s not a regular speed limit sign because it says “SCHOOL”. It’s just roadside clutter.

If that sign had the right words, it still wouldn’t create a school zone. In California school zones may not be used when the school is “separated from the highway by a fence, gate, or other physical barrier.” The school entrance is on a side street; a fence separates the main road from the school. The manual adds, “Pedestrian crossing activity is the primary basis for reduced school speed zones.” The road has no houses or sidewalks on the side opposite the school. Children do not cross there. If it were technically eligible, it still shouldn’t be a school zone.

If it isn’t a school zone, what is it?

The city hasn’t posted any standard speed limit signs. On a four lane rural road the state 65 mph speed limit applies.

In 2010 the city engineer claimed the road was eligible for a 25 mph limit independent of of the school. That finding appears to be based on several violations of state rules.

Over a quarter mile to the west, the road enters a built-up area where another school isn’t behind a fence. That seems to be where the engineer did her spot speed measurement, and then she used the urban speed measurement to set the rural speed limit. California Manual for Setting Speed Limits sections 2.2.2 and 3.2.4 call for speed limits entering a city to drop in 5 or 10 mph increments, with survey locations based on changes in roadside development and driver behavior. The speed limit in the rural area should have been based on a speed measurement there, and should have been intermediate between the 45 mph limit to the east and the 25 mph speed limit to the west.

That’s if the limit should be 25 to the west. Additional errors in the speed study may have resulted in a too-low speed there.

The city used a speed trailer to collect data, which goes against the advice in Manual section 3.2. Speed measurements should be done by humans because not every vehicle is supposed to be counted. Only on “very low volume” roadways can machines be trusted. Otherwise they are liable to read too low because they don’t understand the difference between traffic jams and free flow.

Radar trailers also suggest enforcement; anything that looks like enforcement should be removed or hidden at least two weeks before the survey. (Speed display was turned off during the speed survey.)

If we imagine a legitimate study had justified the 25 mph limit in the built-up part of town, there’s still a problem. In general, if part of a street has speed limit signs the rest of it should be posted too. Drivers coming into town see a 45 mph speed limit followed by a long 25 mph school zone that is not currently in effect. They are entitled to assume that the limit is still 45.

Curiously, this spot doesn’t make the NMA’s speed trap list. Could it be the rest of the city is even worse?

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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