Say a truck driver were to plow into a speed limit sign, rendering it completely unreadable, and further completely unidentifiable as a speed limit sign. It just so happens that this same sign is the first sign indicating a drop to a lower speed limit.

I am driving 60 miles per hour on a 60 mile per hour street, and pass by where originally sat a sign indicating a drop to, say, 40 miles per hour. As there is no sign, I don't know to slow down, and continue driving until stopped by a police officer who claims I am driving past the speed limit. Even if the road is legally set to be a 40 mile per hour road, with no sign indicating the decrease in speed, and no way of knowing there had ever been a speed limit sign there, can I still be ticketed for going over the speed limit?

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    I'm interested in the answer to this question. In Victoria, Australia, the obligation to obey the speed limit is tied to the existence of a street sign (law.stackexchange.com/questions/9289/…), so if you sufficiently destroy the sign your obligations revert to the default of either 50km per hour or 100km per hour depending on what kind of road it is. – Patrick Conheady Apr 27 '17 at 8:15
  • One can always be ticketed. Perhaps you mean to ask whether the absence of a legible sign is a positive defense to the infraction? – feetwet May 4 '17 at 19:04

Obviously the police isn't checking all the time that all the speed limit signs are still where they should be, so in practice you would get a speeding ticket, which the police officer would give you with a good conscience. And you might very well think that you missed the sign, and pay the fine without complaining.

If you are sure there was no sign, you could say to that officer "I didn't see any speed limit sign, where was it? " and hopefully he or she would tell you where that sign was supposed to be. Then you might go back, find the sign on the ground, take a photo, take it to the police officer who would then take action to get the sign back up, and would most likely make that speeding ticket invalid.

There are exceptions: A speed limit sign can actually allow you to go faster than you would be allowed without the sign. For example in a town the normal speed limit without any signs might be 30mph, and the sign said 40mph. If the police officer stops you going 45, you have no excuse because without the sign the limit would have been 30. Or you have one sign 30, followed by a sign 40. Same situation if the "40" is taken down. Or the police should have put up repeating signs every two miles, but put them every mile. If one sign is down, they could still be within the legal limits.

And last, assuming the police didn't put the sign up just for fun, there is probably something making it unsafe to go 60mph if there was a sign 40mph. If that is something you should have seen, and doing 60mph was dangerous for reasons you should have seen, then you might get a ticket for driving at an unreasonable speed. Even if there never was a speed sign. You are never allowed to drive at a dangerous speed.

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    I know of a case where there is a real speed limit sign (only 1!) on approach to an area where it is unsafe to approach at the default highway speed limit but it is not possible to perceive this from the highway. – Joshua Oct 30 '17 at 2:34

Most (maybe all) states have default speed limits that are set state-wide depending on the time of road (eg: highway) and the zone it is traversing (eg: a school). Those speed limits apply except when there is a sign posted, in which case the sign preempts the prima facie speed limit. Michigan's DOT site has a good explanation:

Statutory speed limits are set either as maximum/minimum speed limits or as prima facie restrictions. Prima facie is Latin for "on the face of it" and is the speed limit under most circumstances. These speed limits are set legislatively and apply throughout the state.

Additionally, there are restrictions based on the current road conditions. California calls this a Basic Speed Law.

California has a “Basic Speed Law.” This law means that you may never drive faster than is safe for current conditions. For example, if you are driving 45 mph in a 55 mph speed zone during a dense fog, you may be cited for driving “too fast for conditions.”

The same page details some of the prima facie (global default) limits, but please don't take this to be an inclusive list:

The maximum speed limit on most California highways is 65 mph. You may drive 70 mph where posted. Unless otherwise posted, the maximum speed limit is 55 mph on a two-lane undivided highway and for vehicles towing trailers.

More information is available on the CA DMV web site.

In the UK, traffic laws governing speeding are "strict liability" laws meaning there is no requirement to prove mens rea (guilty conscience or intent). As such, despite the lack of intent you are still liable to sanction. Policing guidelines do however allow for some discretion so in practice if your speed did not pose any danger at the time and the sign was not visible then although an offence was committed they would most likely not deem it in the public interest to issue a fine or penalty.

  • Could you please address the issue of whether there is in law any speed limit if in fact there is no sign? In Victoria, for example, it is the speed limit sign that creates the obligation to drive at a particular speed on a given stretch of road. If the speed limit sign is removed then it has no legal effect. But I'm not sure whether the same rule applies in California, which this question is about, or in the UK, which you answer is about. – Patrick Conheady Aug 26 '17 at 9:50

In German law, the traffic regulation is notified to each driver in the specific situation addressed by it through the road sign (e.g. speed limit sign). If the sign is missing, the traffic regulation is not notified to the driver and thus cannot take effect.

In case of speed limits, the driver would still be required to adjust his speed to the circumstances. And if there are indicators that there normally would be a sign, the driver would have to be even more careful.

Yes. You can still get a ticket because just because there is no sign anymore, that doesn't mean that the speed for that road is not whatever speed you want or the speed you are currently going.

  • Could you please cite some authority for this proposition? In other jurisdictions, it is the speed sign which creates the speed limit. It's not like the government separately declares a particular stretch of road to have a particular speed limit. But I'm not sure how exactly this works in Californian law, so I would be grateful if you could explain this with some authority. – Patrick Conheady Aug 26 '17 at 9:52

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