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What are the Basic Speed Laws and Exceptions in California?

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What are the Basic Speed Limit Laws in California?

California Vehicle Code § 22352 is the basic speed limit law in California. It is captioned “ Prima facie limits” which means it sets out the limits if nothing special is happening. It is the default speed limit.  Many car and motorcycle accidents involve one or more cars that are speeding.  Knowing the basic speed laws and how they can be bent or change is critical when you hire a lawyer.  Here are some of the rules.

To start the prima facie speed limit is situation specific. So let’s start with 15 miles per hour.

When is 15 miles an hour the “prima facie” speed limit?

1. When crossing a train track but only if during the last 100 feet before the crossing you don’t have a clear view to the right and the left of the train track. A clear view means you can see 400 feet or more both ways. And this doesn’t apply at all if there is a mechanical up and down pole that blocks you when a train is near. So basically if there is no traffic control by a train and you can’t see much, go really slow.

2. When two highways cross and during the last 100 feet you (the driver) can’t see clearly for 100 feet on all of the intersecting roads. Except this doesn’t apply if there are stop signs or yield signs etc. A highway isn’t the “I can’t drive at 55" type highway. It is a road. So it deals with all “blind” intersections.

3. In an alley it’s 15 mph despite what you see in action movies.

When is 25 miles an hour the speed limit?

1. On any city or residential or business street unless a faster speed is posted.

2. Children - School - Warning Sign and the speed limit is 25 or less. The signs can control your speed even if they are placed 500 feet before the school actual is reached.

3. Senior Center - Warning Sign - Same rules as children

So the basic rule is 25 unless signs say you can go faster and if the signs say you can go faster it drops back to 25 near schools and elder facilities. Obviously on freeways you can go much faster based upon the posting of the speed limit signs. But even without the signs there is a separate law setting freeway speeds.

Freeway Speed Law
California Vehicle code (CVC) Section 22349 sets the maximum speed limit on a multilane highway as 65 mph and for a two lane undivided roadway 55 mph.

One Way a Governmental Entity Might Be Liable for a Car Accident

Agencies conduct Engineering and Traffic surveys (E&TS) to post speed limits that are lower than these speed limits. Speed limits are established by an E&TS, by considering the following:

Prevailing speeds (or 85th percentile speeds).
Collision History
Highway, traffic, and roadside conditions not readily apparent to the driver.

One can sometimes find such data and then question why the E&TS was not implemented with a lower speed limit at a dangerous location. This can be the basis for a lawsuit against the government agency controlling the speed at a certain location.

Speeding May Not Be Negligence

“The mere driving of an automobile in excess of the speed limit does not show negligence as a matter of law. The jury was free to find [defendant] not guilty of negligence even if they found that he was exceeding the speed limit.” (Williams v. Cole (1960) 181 Cal.App.2d 70, 74)

This can be a trap for an inexperienced personal injury attorney. It is dangerous to assume that just because the police have cited the other driver for speeding, that there is 100% guaranteed liability. The lawyer must still connect the speed to the accident. Had the other driver been at or below the speed limit would the accident still have happened.

Here is how two courts explain the rule.

The burden of proving negligence in a civil action is on the party charging negligence, and even if such party has established speed in excess of the applicable prima facie limit the party must establish negligence under the
circumstances. (Faselli v. Southern Pacific Co. (1957) 150 Cal.App.2d 644, 648)

“Even though the Texaco truck was traveling at a speed less than the maximum specified in the Vehicle Code, the reasonableness of its speed was a question of fact under all the circumstances, and circumstances may make travel at a speed less than the maximum rate a negligent operation of a motor vehicle.” (Scott v. Texaco, Inc. (1966) 239 Cal.App.2d 431, 436–437)

So is Speeding Negligence?

There is a statute that addresses Speeding as Negligence. Vehicle Code section 40831 says that in any lawsuit proof of speed in excess of any prima facie limit declared in Section 22352 at a particular time and place does not establish negligence as a matter of law but in all such actions it shall be necessary to establish as a fact that the operation of a vehicle at the excess speed constituted negligence.

A List of the Basic Speed Laws

• General Maximum Speed is 65 Miles Per Hour. Vehicle Code section 22349(a).

• Basic Maximum Speed for Two-Lane Undivided Highways is 55 Miles Per
Hour. Vehicle Code section 22349(b).

• Maximum Speed at Selected Locations is 70 Miles Per Hour. Vehicle Code
section 22356.

And our favorite: • Driving Too Slowly. Vehicle Code section 22400(a)

How Are Speed Limits Set

Speed limits are based upon the 85th percentile speed of drivers. The 85th percentile speed is the speed at or below which 85 percent of the traffic is moving. Speed Zone Surveys are valid for 5 years and may be extended to 7 years if specific criteria on radar operator certification, equipment calibration, and training have been met. They can be extended to 10 years if the engineer determines all above criteria have een met and no significant changes in roadway or traffic conditions have occurred.

This is important because sometimes politics rather than the 85th percentile rule is the basis of a speed limit. A neighborhood demand for a lower limit may create a basis to challenge a speeding violation in court. In a Contra Costa County city there is an odd and unnecessary traffic light that was installed simply to appease a city official who wanted easy access out of her side street. There is no law saying that a politically placed “red light” justifies a court challenge to a ticket but it is an interesting idea.

However, a speed limit that is artificially low is a more common basis to challenge a ticket assuming that the over the limit speed is within the last measured 85th percentile. This may be useful for challenging a traffic ticket but it can be crucial in challenging a traffic stop that leads to an arrest for a more serious violation such as drugs in the car or a gun in the glove box.  A DUI arrest may be challenged on the same basis.

If you are cited for exceeding the speed limit and there is an accident this may be used against you to prove negligence.  If the speed limit is artificial you might challenge that conclusion.

What are Some Exceptions to the Basic Speed Law?

Exceptions to California's Basic Speed Law are primarily centered around conditions that make it unsafe to adhere to the posted speed limits (Vehicle Code § 22362)

These exceptions are detailed as follows:

Engineering and Traffic Surveys

The Basic Speed Law's enforcement can be challenged if the posted speed limit is not justified by a valid engineering and traffic survey (Vehicle Code § 22362), (People v. Difiore, 197 Cal.App.3d Supp. 26 (1987)), (People v. Miller, 90 Cal.App.3d Supp. 35 (1979)), (People v. Goulet, 13 Cal.App.4th Supp. 1 (1992)), (People v. Halopoff, 60 Cal.App.3d Supp. 1 (1976))[.

Prima Facie Speed Limits

It is considered a prima facie violation of the Basic Speed Law to operate a vehicle in excess of posted speed limits in areas where workers are present and appropriate signs are displayed (Vehicle Code § 22362)[1]. This suggests that adhering to posted speed limits without such signs might not automatically be considered a violation under certain circumstances. This is a tough area to win and is highly speculative and fact based.

Totality of Circumstances

The law is not limited to regulating speed with reference only to external conditions but also considers the totality of circumstances, including the manner of driving (People v. Farleigh, 13 Cal.App.5th Supp. 12 (2017)). This interpretation allows for flexibility in enforcing the law based on specific situations that might not strictly fall under external conditions. It also can be used against someone on the basis that they were driving at a speed below the speed limit but unsafe for conditions that includes how they were driving.

If you are involved in a car or motorcycle accident our expert personal injury lawyers will carefully review your accident to ensure that we tie down liability and maximize your personal injury recovery. Call Daniel Horowitz for help. There is never a fee until you actually recover damages from the other side. Our offices are conveniently located in Lafayette (Contra Costa County). We are just five blocks from the BART station and our office has plenty of free parking. We can also work with you on Zoom.