Slower speeds rolling out on 36 city roadways courtesy of new state law Middleton helped craft

Palm Springs officials and others took the wraps off a sign Friday believed to be among the first in the state to begin tackling the “holy grail” of untouchable California laws: Speed limits in the city are actually coming down.

“We have achieved something that has not been done in decades in California,” said Mayor Lisa Middleton prior to helping unveil the sign along Toledo Avenue that shows the speed at 40 mph instead of 45. “We are lowering speed limits in Palm Springs.”

The move was made possible by a state bill shepherded by Assemblymember Laura Friedman — AB43 — that went into effect on Jan. 1. Municipalities were previously only allowed to set speed limits within the 85th percentile of “spot speed” surveys conducted by traffic engineers. The surveys measure typical vehicle speeds on some city streets and never resulted in math that suggested a speed decrease. Under AB43, cities are now allowed to consider many other factors when determining vehicle speed limits, including pedestrian and bicycle use on streets.

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After a traffic engineering firm completed its survey of city streets in early 2021 — the first since 2013 — it was determined that the speed limits on 179 of 215 street segments would need to remain the same. On the remainder, however, the speed limits are now allowed to come down, typically by 5 mph. The Palm Springs City Council unanimously approved those lower limits last December. A complete list of roadways where speeds will be changed can be found in a city staff report here.

For Middleton, the flexibility allowed for under the new state law was a bit of a personal mission. She was one of more than two dozen members of the state’s Zero Fatalities Task Force that helped draft language used in AB43.

Middleton first began campaigning for lower speeds while serving as president of the Organized Neighborhoods of Palm Springs (ONE-PS) nearly a decade ago. It was then that she heard from seniors and others who were too frightened to walk along Sunrise Way near Ramon Road — one of the busiest and most dangerous intersections in the city — but also heard from city engineers who said lowering the speeds was out of their hands. Undeterred, she dived into finding a solution.

“That 85th percentile rule was not put onto clay tablets on the base of Mt. Sinai,” she recalled thinking. “This is something that can be changed.”

Nobody who spoke Friday was predicting lowering the speeds on three dozen road segments would instantly make the city safer. But something needs to be done. Both Police Chief Andy Mills and Fire Chief Kevin Nalder mentioned data they said was alarming for a city the size of Palm Springs, including the following:

  • There were 1,500 traffic collisions in the city last year, resulting in 450 injuries. In nearly all of the incidents involving injuries, speed was a factor.
  • Sixteen people were killed in those collisions last year, and an average of nine people have been killed in traffic collisions each year since 2013.
  • Pedestrians were involved in 10% of the injury incidents, including some of the fatalities.

“Speed kills,” said Mills, adding that the lower speed limits have actually proven to be a deterrent to drivers despite criticism that they will just be ignored.

“Every time you lower a speed limit, even just five miles per hour, there is an exponential percentage lower chance of somebody dying,” said Friedman.

Middleton, buoyed by the fact she was able to help lower speed limits in the city, said she wouldn’t stop here. She vowed to continue chipping away at any regulations that allow the state to interfere with local lawmakers’ ability to determine what’s best on their streets.

“We didn’t eliminate the 85th percentage rule with AB43, but we wounded it,” she said. “And I’m not going to quit until I kill it.”

As for what’s next, Middleton said she will be knocking on doors in Sacramento Monday morning, trying to campaign for Palm Springs’s inclusion in a state pilot program that will see automated speed-camera enforcement systems installed in five cities.

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