Sounds good in theory...
So the Sonoma County Department of Transportation and Public Works (DTPW) has determined that the way to get people to slow down around here is to raise the speed limit. Newspeak? Shades of 1984?
Here’s the reasoning. Back in the day, small communities would set speed limits ridiculously low and nail unsuspecting drivers with hefty speeding tickets, not only deterring speeders but also padding their municipal coffers. At some point, the state legislature passed California Vehicle Code section 40801 prohibiting these “speed traps.” In order to enforce speed limits using a radar gun, first there has to be an official engineering and traffic study (E&TS). These studies have to be conducted every five to 10 years in order to use radar enforcement. The California Manual for Setting Speed Limits states, “Speed limits set by E&TS are normally set near the 85th percentile speed. The 85th percentile speed is the speed at or below which 85 percent of the traffic is moving.” In Kenwood, the E&TS determined that the speed limit on Warm Springs Road between Highway 12 and Mervin Avenue, just past the Depot, should be 35 mph instead of the currently posted 25 mph. This scenario applies to Glen Ellen as well, where speeds will be raised from 25 to 30 mph on Madrone Road from the Sonoma Creek Bridge to Arnold Drive, and on Arnold Drive from Warm Springs Road to Gibson.
Well, of course. People will always drive as fast as the flow of traffic and conditions allow. That doesn’t always make it right. The section of Warm Springs Road in Kenwood, for example, goes through a residential area with Plaza Park on one side of the road, and not surprisingly, a number of walkers, runners, dog-walkers and children. But, according to DTPW, now that the 35 mph speed limit is official, the California Highway Patrol (CHP) can legally enforce it using radar.
In a perfect world, that might be true. If we had a dedicated CHP officer in Kenwood and Glen Ellen every day, sure, people wouldn’t speed. But we know that’s not going to happen. If the posted speed is 35, most of us will go 40, maybe even 45, and probably with complete impunity. We’ll be lucky if CHP comes here a few times a month.
When our son Gus was about 11, he and Alec got lost. We were in Wyoming, up on some Bureau of Land Management land. The two had gone off exploring, and when it was time for lunch they had not returned. This was so unlike Gus, who was (and still is) a human vacuum cleaner, that we quickly got worried and went out looking for them. The terrain is rough, and there are steep ravines and gullies. I was envisioning them falling down a hill, possibly breaking a leg and not being able to climb out. I wanted helicopters and an army of people to help with the search. Of course, it all turned out fine and we found them wandering down a dirt road, completely turned around. But it brought home how vast the great outdoors really is. It’s not that pretty map with green open spaces and blue-lined rivers and streams. You are not a blue dot on an iPhone, easy to find and easy to get to. When you are lost in the wilderness, you’re in trouble and better have some survival skills.
What looks good on paper, and what actually happens, are two different things. When what you hope to see bumps up against the hard reality of real-world human behavior, or real-earth geography for that matter, reality wins. Raising the speed limit is not the same as lowering it, and it won’t make the traffic go slower.