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What is California's Basic Speed Law?

California’s Basic Speed Law: Protecting Victims of Car Accidents in California


Speeding is one of the top contributing factors to car accidents in California. Crash data collected in 2017 by The National Highway Transportation Safety Association (NHTSA) shows that speeding was involved over ¼ of all fatal auto accidents nationwide, contributing to the deaths of over 9,000 in that one year alone. Unfortunately, traffic fatalities in California represent nearly 11% of the nation's total. That means that nearly 1,000 people are killed in speed-related crashes here in the state every year.


But even when all parties involved in an accident caused by speeding survive, there are consequences. Indeed, speed is one of the primary factors law enforcement agencies, insurance companies, and legal teams use to determine liability. Essentially, when a driver exceeds an established speed limit (either a posted limit or a Prima Facie speed limit – such as inside a school zone) they shift legal responsibility onto their own shoulders.


While all of California’s public roadways are subject to some sort of speed limit (posted or unposted), California’s Basic Speed Law was designed to help victims of crashes protect themselves in cases where determining liability isn’t so cut and dry.


Understanding Speed Limits in California

California law outlines two types of speed limits: 

  • Absolute speed limits
  • Prima Facie speed limits

California's absolute speed limits are exactly what they sound like—the maximum speed allowed under law for the stretch of road on which the limit is posted. These limits prohibit drivers from exceeding those limits and outline the penalties for violations. 


In most cases, the speed limits on California’s highways and freeways fall under the State’s Maximum Speed Limit. That’s 55 mph, 65 mph, or 70 mph depending on the type of road and the area through which it passes. Local municipalities are permitted to lower speed limits below the state maximum under the California Vehicle Code (vc 22349 and vc 22356) but all such reductions must be based on a Traffic and Engineering Study.


Prima Facie speed limits are special exceptions that are designed to cover conditions in which there is no clear cut maximum speed limit. California's "prima facie" speed limits are clearly delineated in 22352 of the California Vehicle Code. This section clearly states that (unless otherwise posted) the prima facie speed limits are as follows:


15 miles per hour at:

  • Railroad crossings
  • Alleys
  • Highway intersections without 100 feet of visibility of approaching vehicles

25 miles per hour in:

  • Business districts
  • Residential areas
  • School zones
The major difference between absolute and prima facie speed limits in California is that when a driver exceeds the prima facie speed limit in a given area, they are not automatically in violation of the law. 

But—to make matters even more complicated—“speeding” doesn’t always involve going over an established limit. Indeed, the California Basic Speed law means that a driver must use common sense and assess the situation through which they are driving to determine what a safe and prudent speed is. 


California Vehicle Code 22350:  The Basic Speed Law

Vehicle Code 22350 (commonly known as the Basic Speed Law) states that:


“No person shall drive a vehicle upon a highway at a speed greater than is reasonable or prudent having due regard for weather, visibility, the traffic on, and the surface and width of, the highway, and in no event at a speed which endangers the safety of persons or property.”


What California’s Basic Speed Law really means is that drivers are required to operate their automobiles at a safe speed in any and all travel conditions. That “safe speed” may be far below the posted speed limit on any given road.


Most people only learn about California’s Basic Speed Law when they’ve been issued citations by the CHP, police, or sheriff’s deputies. Fines for violating California’s Basic Speed law can range from $150 to $400 or more. However, the law was designed to protect victims in speed-related automobile accidents in California and elsewhere.


What this Law Means for California Motorists 

This law effectively creates a legal requirement mandating that drivers:

  • Know how to safely operate their vehicles in a variety of situations including night driving, inclement weather, or dangerous road conditions (such as unpaved surfaces and debris or liquids on the roadway).
  • Know when they must reduce their current speed to safer levels in order to avoid car accidents.
  • Accept that if they exceed a “reasonable” speed—even if it’s well below the posted limit—that they can be held criminally (and civilly) liable for any property damage or injuries they caused during a car crash.



How the Law Determines “Reasonable” Speeds

The California Department of Motor Vehicles states that proper speed is based on several factors including:


Traffic—Not only should safe drivers decrease speeds when the number of cars on the roadway increases, but they should also match the speed of the traffic in which they are traveling.


Road Surfaces—Different road surfaces mandate different safe speeds. For instance, wet asphalt is considerably more slippery than dry. Unpaved surfaces reduce tire traction and limit driver control. Uneven roads can “pull” cars to one side or the other. All of these conditions (and more) should be taken into account when determining a reasonable speed.


Pedestrians and Bicyclists—Drivers should always yield to pedestrians and cyclists for safety—even if the car has the right of way. This is common sense and includes lowering your speed when approaching those walking or riding on the side of the road or in crosswalks.


Weather—Perhaps the most powerful determining factor is weather. Rain, snow, ice, fog, even smog can create conditions in which the posted speed limit is far too high for safe operation. Drivers must understand that reduced visibility, increased reaction time, and weather-related surface conditions can dramatically alter how their automobile handles.


Other conditions in which speed should be reduced include:

  • School Zones
  • Blind Intersections
  • Alleys
  • Railroad Crossings
  • Closing Near Trolleys, Buses, Street Cars
  • Spotting Animals in or Near the Roadway

How Fast is Too Fast Legally?

Proving an individual’s liability can be difficult in these types of auto injury cases. Under California’s Basic Speed Law, determining “excessive” speed can be subjective. While the victim of an auto accident may feel the driver was speeding, the driver may believe they were driving safely. It often falls to experienced California personal injury attorneys to help victims press their case and prove that the driver was indeed traveling too fast (whether or not they exceeded the posted speed limit.)


If your case goes into litigation (or makes it all the way to trial) a police officer will be called in to testify that indeed the at-fault party did violate California’s Basic Speed Law. This “expert testimony” holds a great deal of weight because police officers not only have extensive experience driving in all sorts of weather, they’ve undergone specialized driver training to help them handle those adverse road conditions. Judges, insurance adjusters, and defense attorneys place a great deal of emphasis on this expert testimony. However, it may not even be necessary to take your California automobile accident case to trial or even court.


Why People Speed

NPR dug deeper into the psychology of drivers and tried to uncover the basic reasons why we speed. Professor Leon James, a professor of psychology at the University of Hawaii and co-author of the book "Road Rage and Aggressive Driving" told the media outlet that essentially we all have our own personal definition of speeding.  


"It goes back to the idea that people don't consider that speeding or they don't consider that something unsafe. So most people take risks when they are driving and this is true of any activity. So the risks we are taking tends to be very consistent. So it depends slightly on the situation but when we're in a hurry and we decide that it's safe to break the speed limit by 20 then we go ahead and do it."


We essentially determine how safe we think it is to drive by estimating the risk we're placing ourselves in at any given time. In fact, there's a specific psychological term for it called the target risk effect. It's called target risk. ". . . when we speed or do other maneuvers," Professor James notes. "The driver is in control of how much risk he or she is willing to take at that particular time. And it tends to be very, very consistent, so some drivers take a larger risk and some drivers, a smaller risk. But under certain conditions, all drivers will take certain risks."


But how deeply is this disregard for the posted limit ingrained in us?


In addition, an NHTSA survey uncovered some troubling attitudes about speeding from drivers who regularly exceed the posted limit. 16% of those surveyed considered speeding—even excessive speeding—"safe" for "skilled" drivers. Statistics show that's just not the case. Speeding dramatically increases the likelihood that cars will collide and people will get hurt. 


But many people seem not to care about that either. In fact, 17% of those survey participants agreed that "if it is your time to die, you’ll die, so it doesn’t matter whether you speed."


This becomes very apparent when drivers are operating in an area regulated by Prima Facie speed limits rather than hard and fast absolute speed limits. Indeed, it can be very difficult for victims to prove liability when the at-fault driver is arguing that they did not in fact violate California's Basic Speed Law.


Violations of California's Basic Speed Law are Serious

Because speeding is such a powerful contributing factor to the number of car crashes in California and the severity of those crashes, California's law enforcement community takes violations of speed limits very seriously. Fines for even a first violation can range from $35.00 to more than $500.00. In addition, points will be placed on the operator's license and the individual may be required to attend driving school.


If an individual is speeding and causes an accident, they can be held criminally responsible and face charges that may result in jail time. 


In addition, if the speeding driver injures another driver, bicyclist, pedestrian, or even the passenger in their own car, they can be held legally liable for that person's injuries. That means they (or their insurance company) may be ordered to pay a substantial amount to compensate victims for medical expenses and property damage. 


Speeding and Rear-End Car Accidents—a Common Danger on California Roads

As a personal injury lawyer focusing on traffic accidents, I’ve met dozens of victims who have had their lives completely derailed by a collision with a speeding driver. A vast majority of these collisions are rear-end crashes in which speeding drivers fail to stop in time and smash into slowed, parked, or disabled cars in or near the roadway.  These types of car accidents in California happen every day just like this accident where a mother was driving her infant to his first medical appointment and it seems you can’t take highway 880 or highway 580 without witnessing one.


And while many of these at-fault drivers are traveling above the posted limit at the time of the crash, many more are simply traveling too fast for the road and traffic conditions. How many times have you experienced cars flying by you on the highway, passing in a rush, weaving between cars like it was a game? How many times have those drivers cut you off, come too close for comfort, or even temporarily lost control of their vehicles?


If you’ve been injured at the hands of one of these reckless drivers, you may be protected under a specific law designed to protect innocent victims like you in the event of an auto accident in California.


Why You Need a Personal Injury Lawyer If You've Been in a Serious Accident

Sally Morin and her team of expert car accident lawyers in California have the experience and the resources necessary to settle many cases out of court. We don’t take the first low-ball offer an insurance company throws out, but we also won’t drag clients unwillingly into trial. Our California auto accident investigators will examine the hard evidence in your case (including accident reconstructions, medical documentation and witness testimony) to determine exactly what your injuries are worth. We then use our considerable influence to press back against aggressive insurance adjusters or defense attorneys and convince them that paying a settlement in line with your injuries is in their best interest.

This can get you more money for your case, put that money in your pocket faster and result in far less stress during your recovery.


Get the Legal Help You Need Now

If you’ve been injured in a car accident caused by a speeding driver in California, call the focused traffic accident lawyers at Sally Morin Personal Injury Lawyers at (510) 858-2231 today or get a FREE online case evaluation now to see if we can help.