Jack Ohman

Sacramento traffic: I learned the truth at 17

I've been driving for about 36 years. I'm a perfectly OK driver. I'm alive, I keep the shiny side up and in between the telephone poles, and I observe pertinent signage.

Some signage in Sacramento has perplexed me, and some has exhilarated me.

When I drive through Sacramento, I still find it really cool that there are signs for San Francisco and Los Angeles on the freeway. I suppose this is a remnant of growing up mostly in Minnesota, where the most exciting highway sign in the Twin Cities was for Faribault and Albert Lea. There wasn't even an inspiring sign for Chicago.

One set of signs in certain neighborhoods that amuse me are the signs for "Speed Bumps," "Speed Lumps," and "Undulations."

Now, I am certain there are very specific surface street engineer definitions for bumps, lumps, and undulations. I really do not have the time or inclination to have it explained to me; if you want to do so, go right ahead. I'll file your e-mail under the Massive Difference Between Pepsi and Coca-Cola. I just don't think there's much of a distinction between bumps, lumps, and undulations.

Which brings me to The Sign of End Times.

There is a traffic sign in Midtown that reads "17 MPH."

Not 15. Not 20. 


Now, I mention again that I have been on the road since 1975, and that was a hell of long time ago. Like, Jerry Brown was governor then.

So, I have seen many, many signs. No auguries. But signs.

I have never seen a sign that asks me to please keep it under 17 mph, under penalty of law.

The 17 mph sign is located around a traffic island in the middle of the street, and these are indeed treacherous and annoying. Combined with the 17, the symbol for the island looks like a small algebra problem one has to solve while navigating around it. Annoying in and of itself, and then you have to make the tricky jog right/left. Survivable, certainly.

But I am still stuck on the question: Why 17?

Now, knowing people in passing who are involved in things way more complicated than drawing my little political cartoons, there must be some sort of actual reason for 17 miles per hour. There must have been a bunch of traffic engineers somewhere in Caltrans with a radar speed gun, endlessly clocking a test car with passengers with heads mounted on springs as it circumnavigates a simulated traffic island.

I hope they didn't roll the car at 18.

No, it's 17 mph; the optimal speed with which to proceed. 

There may be some explanation other than my own snide, mean-spirited ones.

I'll ponder it as I drive home at 25 mph, praying I see a Speed Limit 27 mph sign.

And if Caltrans was involved, they might have just let this 17 mph sign slip by on an inspection, or made a mistake.

I'll just be glad the sign isn't on a bridge.