Philo: Speed Trap Or Death Trap?

by Mark Scaramella, February 1, 2017

Mr. Darren Hill, a Caltrans traffic engineer out of the Eureka 1 District office, opened the discussion of the downtown Philo speed limit at the Board of Supervisors meeting last Tuesday with some dry Vehicle Code citations explaining the Caltrans process and the “prevailing speed” concept that requires that Caltrans to set speed limts at around the speed that 85% of the traffic goes, otherwise the area is considered an unenforceable “speed trap.” He said that the Philo 30mph speed limit was set more than ten years ago and therefore it had “expired,” and that’s why they sent a survey team out to check how fast people go through town.

Everyone is against the idea except Caltrans. And everyone has a good reason to be against it. Caltrans knows this and that’s why they did their best to minimize the notification of the public. But we noticed the proposal a few weeks ago in County Transportation Director Howard Deshield’s monthly report and put out the word. We also notified the Community Services District (with the help of Philo resident David Severn). Opposition quickly mobilized and a contingent went over to Ukiah (the meeting should have been held in Philo at the Grange like the last one was in the 90s when the speed limit was set at 30mph in the first place).

Although Caltrans sent a traffic engineer to Ukiah to make a presentation and hear the community’s objections, at no time did Caltrans provide advance copies of the presentation to allow the public to examine and comment on this specious, illogical and downright dangerous “survey.”

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Anderson Valley Resident Deputy Craig Walker: I am here as a Philo resident not necessarily as a Sheriff's deputy. I do not represent the Sheriff's office in this. I will draw on eight years of experience as a resident deputy in Anderson Valley to inform some of my comments. I'm not always on the same page with Mr. Hamburg, but I find that I am in this case this morning. We expect considerable development in Philo in the coming years. There is plenty of congestion in that area. The Caltrans traffic engineer pointed out that his survey was done during the week. As a deputy working at one time or another every day of the week, I can say that traffic patterns vary dramatically between the weekdays and the weekend. That's largely a function of what we call the weekend commute to and from the coast. People go west on Fridays and return on Sundays, all of which has a dramatic impact on the congestion in Philo and by extension on traffic patterns. As a deputy with eight years experience in with the sheriff's office and 18 years in total, I have done more than probably anyone in this room traffic related. I am not a traffic engineer. But I can tell you from my experience that when you say it's 30 mph, that really means its 40. Every degree that you raise it you are really adding on another five or ten miles per hour. I understand the minutia of the vehicle code. But the vehicle code is a document, a cold piece of paper. It does not speak to the reality on the ground in Philo. We all know that Philo is a small, fairly compact environment. There is very little infrastructure in terms of pedestrian walkways and the like. I understand that before my time there was a crosswalk that is now long since gone. There is also an issue with enforcement. Frankly, I think the only person who has done any enforcement there in recent years is me. And 99% of that is warnings. I try to encourage people to slow down by contact or by simply being in the area. There is very little interest on the part of the Highway Patrol to be there. I don't know if that's always been the case, but I think it will always be the case. So I would encourage this board to resist the temptation to raise the speed limit.

Philo resident Colleen Schenck: This is a multi-use area. People come into town to use the post office, go to the store, sometimes two or three days a week. The school buses drop off and pick up children there. That has not been mentioned at all. And that is one of our biggest concerns. The speed limit there puts children in danger during the times they are picked up and dropped off during the day. The idea of slowing the speed limit on either side of town is a good idea. But I would not raise the speed limit because people will just drive even faster as a result.

Philo resident Barbara Scott: I live about half a mile north of Philo. I'm one of the pedestrians who walks in the area. I understand through my calls to Caltrans and others that this is the law, that if 85% of the traffic is going faster than the speed limit then it's a speed trap. I understand that. But I don't want Philo to become a death trap — again. I urge you to refuse this suggestion from Caltrans.

Philo resident Beverly Dutra: This is not flat road. Going north, the driver comes up an incline and it is blind. He cannot see who's there. The first road coming into the highway drains all the homes coming into the highway from Whipple Ridge and Clearwater Ranch right in front of Lemons. And Lemons market is packed with cars parking vertically and horizontally with pedestrians. We have homes across the street, the school buses stop there in both directions, there are two wine tastings, the post office, another habitation, and right after that is another poorly designed road because it was an old ragland road. The road dips and turns. That's where four young men were killed speeding through that area. I don't want to see that happen again. It took the Highway Patrol hours to get here and investigate from Sacramento and the four dead kids had to sit in the car with all of us observing that carnage. Then there's a gateway of a house which is no longer used as a bed and breakfast because the gate has been broken four times by speeding cars going into it. There is the Scharffenberger winery which is an industrial setting with trucks coming out into the highway and there’s Rays which is a blind curve coming south. The egress out of that is kind of scary. I've almost been hit four or five times at the post office. This road needs to stay at 30 mph. It's not our problem that it the speed limit expired. If it expired, put it back right the way it was then put 40 mph on either side. If we look at the increasing speed, speakers come because they've been on Highway 128 and have been having a problem. They violate the speed limit of 55 by going 65 or 75 or 80 mph in the flat spot. Is Caltrans going to move those speed limits to 65 and 75? The logic here is just sophistry. You don't orchestrate people in human environments by a mathematical chart. You have to look physically at that incline and the endangerment of our children and our citizens. I wish more people from Anderson Valley were here to speak. We were not noticed. We don't look at the Caltrans facebook page. The Anderson Valley paper mentioned it as a kind of rumor. That was not proper notification. Caltrans needs to take care of their business.”

Jo Bradley, Little River: I did not come here for this particular item. But this is really important that that speed limit be left at 30 mph. About a year ago or longer Caltrans, without any notice, raised the speed limit in Little River through downtown Little River from 30 miles an hour to 35 mph in front of the straightaway where I happen to live from 40-45 mph. We have tons of speeders. They see a straightaway and they put their foot on it. Since they raised the speed limit we have had more accidents in that straightaway with people turning in at Schoolhouse Creek and turning into residences on the west side of the highway and our property is right there. I have picked up more dead deer out of the road because people cannot slow down to miss them. I think it would be an absolute major problem if you raised the speed limit in Philo. I see the results of it in Little River. I slow down. I can't say I don't speed in the other parts. I've been stopped and been warned before in Philo. So when I go through our little towns I stick to the speed limit. There's a reason for it and it should be the way it is.”

Supervisor John McCowen: The public comment is very clear that no one supports the raising of the 30 mph speed limit. They do support lowering it on either end. If it's lowered on either end, but remains the same in the middle, would the lowered speed limit on each end be enforceable?

Hill: We can't do that. It's a package deal.

McCowen: If it's valid to set it at 45 for each end why couldn’t that portion be 30?

Hill: Because the zone is centered on Philo. That's the 35. There is no real justification for a transition zone to nothing if it's an unenforceable speed trap in the middle.

McCowen: It seemed like we are burdened by an inflexible state code section. Although you are saying it would not be enforceable a lower speed limit that is not legally enforceable may actually be more effective in slowing people down than a legally justifiable speed zone that isn't enforced. Frankly I would support retaining the 30 mph for downtown Philo, lowering it to 45 on these each side with the understanding that that's not enforceable. Coupled with that, how about having— I know this would involve another state agency, but if we had actual enforcement of the 55 outside of the town that could have the effect of clueing people in that you do need to be slowing down. And then if that was followed up with a subsequent speed survey maybe it would show that we could justify a lower speed zone.

Brown: I get a lot of phone calls in this county. I know it takes a study that needs to be completed. What authority does the Board of Supervisors have on this matter? I believe by state law we have no power.

McCowen: I don't think we are setting the speed limit, I think we can offer a recommendation.

Howard Deshield: The vehicle code says that Caltrans is obligated to be at this public hearing and listen to the public comment. I guess the board can give a recommendation like the public could.

Hill: Section 22354.5 Section B. says that we will take into consideration the results of the public hearing in determining whether to increase or decrease the speed limit. As you have noticed we always assume that every comment will be opposed to raising the posted speed limit. So we always set it as low as legally possible. That is the standard by which we work all of our speed zones. So you can absolutely give us a recommendation to not change it. But we don't have the legal authority to leave the 30 mph signs out. That leaves CHP officers in a vulnerable position of a potentially enforcing a speed trap in which they are then considered an incompetent witness when they go to court and have to defend those tickets. That is inappropriate for us to do.

Supervisor Dan Gjerde: We have a unique situation here. I appreciate that Deputy Walker was here on his own time as a Philo resident. He told us that CHP is not enforcing this area. It's just the Sheriff's department, and largely him, that's enforcing anything. He said his enforcement procedure is primarily through warnings. Given that, it's not really essential that it be an enforceable ticket zone because there is no enforcement going on anyway. We see no one here from CHP saying that they want to ticket the area. We see no evidence the that they are ticketing the area. So why not leave it at the current 30 mph speed limit as unenforceable as it may be because the way enforcement takes place there is strictly through warnings through the County Sheriff's Department?

Supervisor Dan Hamburg: I agree with Supervisor Gjerde and my colleagues. It's hard for me to accept that we have to be the victims of what's written on a piece of paper when we know that it doesn't make sense. We know that if we change the speed limit to 35 mph, people are going to drive 5 mph faster than they already drive. Really, what makes Caltrans think that raising the speed limit is going to make that little village, that little area, more safe for the people there? I agree that you are all worried about a speed trap, but you are not worried about a death trap. It's just crazy. It makes no sense. It's hard for me to accept. It's also hard for me to accept that Caltrans does a lousy job of informing the public that this was actually happening. I take some responsibility as a supervisor for the area. I did make the assumption that this would be in local media. Then I found out that it was noticed in Ukiah daily Journal. And I heard that the AVA noticed there was a rumor going around. Caltrans did not get the word out to the affected area that this change was coming about. For that reason, I would like to continue this public hearing until the next day on which the board can hear it because there are probably another several dozen people from the Philo area who would like you to hear of their concerns. The people who came here today probably did it at the last minute. The Community Services District, the closest thing to a government in Anderson Valley, just became aware of this last week when a citizen came in and said, Did you hear that this was going to happen? I'm sure you've seen the letter they have sent asking that this public hearing be continued. I want to at least give people in the area an opportunity to be heard by you and to hear from them why this is just an idiotic proposal. I don't care what's written in your regulations. This makes no sense.

McCowen: I agree that the notice was not everything it could have been. Notice was in the local Anderson Valley paper, not the Ukiah Daily Journal and yet we did have six public speakers. Mr. Severn has a letter that's in the current edition of the Anderson Valley Advertiser. The action of the Community Services District as well as this agenda item were reported online. I tend to think the sentiment of the board is strongly in support of the community sentiment. It does however seem that Caltrans’s regulation is inflexible. So three dozen more people saying the same thing would not produce a different outcome. That's what I believe I'm hearing. You are basically telling us what your department is going to do regardless of any public comment or input or logic.

Hill: 42.7 mph is the average 85th percentile through the Philo speed zone. We have already taken into account the 5 mph increment from the public's comments. We have already assumed that the public is already going to say no and we have taken the 5 mph into account. There is not another option for a further reduction that can be taken. We have repeatedly seen that when we have raised or lowered posted speed limits there is then no change to the 85th percentile. What we do see is when we put the speed closer to the 85th percentile collision rates drop because it encourages drivers to a closer speed to what other drivers are driving. As it's currently set at 30. You can see that drivers are doing in excess of 15-19 mph over the posted speed limit. That generally does not change when we raise the speed limit. If you're going 50 mph and it's posted at 30 mph just because it's posted at 35 miles an hour doesn't mean that you are going to do 55. You will still feel comfortable doing 50. I'm not saying that's either legal or right but the drivers drive by what they see in the roadway and deem as safe for themselves. That's how the speed limits are set.

McCowen: You're saying you've done everything you can to put the speed limit at the lowest defensible level?

Hill: That's correct.

Gjerde: I support a letter that urges that the 30 mph be retained recognizing that it's not enforceable through tickets. We heard from the Sheriff's office that the Sheriff primarily relies on warnings anyway and that we also request that Caltrans do what they can do within their budget for things like visually narrowing the travel lane, by law they can the fog line closer to the center line. They can do certain things that will eventually cause drivers to slow their driving even a couple of miles per hour. Efforts should be instituted before a future public hearing a few years down the road where this could be revisited with an updated study. I know our letter may not be followed by Caltrans but I think that's what I would like to see from us.

McCowen: I think Supervisor Hamburg should work with staff to craft that letter.

Hamburg: Yes. I appreciate Supervisor Gjerde’s idea. Any kind of traffic calming measures would be supported. I also support some enforcement. I don't know if Caltrans ever talks to the Highway Patrol but we have talked about enforcement. We have been told that the enforcement is basically nil. It would help if we had some enforcement through that area. I support the motion but I will not vote for it because I'm disgusted by the entire proceeding. I think it's ill-conceived. I understand that if you raise the speed limit, people might not speed up. That may make sense to you as a traffic engineer but it makes no sense to me and I don't think that’s the way human beings actually drive.

McCowen: The points of the letter would be that we prefer to honor the wishes of the community and retain a 30 mph speed limit, we also support traffic calming measures and encourage actual speed zone enforcement by the Highway Patrol.

Hamburg: Even if it's through warnings. Because apparently it's not enforceable through tickets. But they can certainly issue warnings.

McCowen: It seems like enforcement outside those zones would be very good because people are driving too fast coming in to the area.

Hamburg: I support the lowering to 45 on either side. That makes a lot of sense to me so thank you for that.

The motion to write a letter to Caltrans recommending that the 30mph be left alone but the entry area either way be reducedto 45mph was approved 3-1, Hamburg dissenting.

IN THE END, the Supervisors agreed with the Anderson Valley delegation. The Supes said they are writing to CalTrans to formally request that traffic through Philo continue to be slowed, at least in signage. We'll have more on this subject soon, but preliminarily, Bob Vaughn of Philo neatly summarized community feeling:

Vaughn: "The reason that people do not observe the 30 mph speed limit is by benign neglect.... This is something they will not admit, but I have heard from two CHP officers who I have talked to there at the gas station that nobody likes to come to Anderson Valley. The time that you need somebody there is between five and seven in the morning and three and six in the afternoon. If the CHP had been there when Caltrans did their survey, the numbers would change dramatically. That's the way it is. People know that there is nobody there. They laugh at the speed limit and the police. I live on Rays Road. I have been almost rear ended twice now by people coming down wanting to make a right. Oftentimes I have to go down to Lemons', turn into the Lemons' parking lot, go around the rotten fruit juice emporium, and then make a left hand turn into Ray's Road. And talking about people going into Scharffenberger, the idea of reducing the speed limits on both sides to 45 mph is a good idea. That would make a big difference. This morning, it was foggy and I was watching kids run across the street dodging cars who were going well over 35 mph. You have Blackbird Farm now picking up people and going down Rays Road and it is flat-out dangerous. It's due to benign neglect. If the CHP was there things would be a lot better. It's not fair to Craig Walker who does a great job as our resident deputy. It's not fair to put that burden on him considering that it is a STATE highway. It's a STATE highway. California Highway Patrol should take care of STATE highways. That's a big one. If they did, maybe we could get a few of those wine-drinking speeders off the road and pull in a little extra revenue. I know that's unpopular because the grapevine industry is a sacred cow in this County. But maybe it's time to start reeling it back in a little bit. I would like to be able to ride my bike to the store. I would like to be able to walk to the store. I would like to be able to walk with my neighbors to the store. I see that my time is up, thank you.”

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