Have you ever wondered why there are speed limits? Or how they came to be? In this blog post, we will explore the history of speed limits and find out why they are in place.

Speed limits are the maximum, or the minimum, speed drivers can legally travel along roads and highways. Speed limits are set with the goal of keeping all road users safe – whether drivers, passengers, cyclists, or pedestrians. The signposted limits are designed on what is believed to be the safest speed for the flow of traffic. In the US, local municipalities set speed limits for in-town traffic, and each state sets highway speed limits.

Early Speed Regulations

Speed regulations actually predate automobiles. There is definitive evidence of the American colony of New Netherland imposing a rule in 1652 that stated “in order to prevent accidents, no Wagons, Carts, or Sleighs shall be run, rode or driven at a gallop…”  And so existed the first speed limit, over two hundred years before the first automobile in 1896.  The first evidence of a numeric limit was the 16 km/h imposed in the UK in 1861.  

The first speed limit that targeted four wheels and internal combustion came in the great state of Connecticut on May 21, 1901.  The late Henry Ford once said, “Auto racing began five minutes after the second car was built” and it is easy to see how the marketing pitches of the early automobile era touting fast, smooth rides would lead to trouble inside city limits.  The Connecticut law put a limit of 15 miles per hour outside city limits and 12 within them.  

For the next 60+ years, states would regulate and enforce their own speed limits based on what they deemed acceptable.

National 55mph Limit

By the early 1970s, the production car land speed record had been set and beaten no less than nine times as automakers, especially those with racing pedigree, fought for the ultimate bragging right: top speed.  State speed limits varied from 50mph in parts of New England, to 80mph on the Kansas turnpike, to unrestricted “reasonable and prudent” on certain stretches of long, straight roads in Nevada and Montana.  

This all changed with the National Maximum Speed Law of 1974, the result of inconsistent oil supply and prices during the 1973 oil crisis.  The federal government, hoping to save 2.2% more gasoline, mandated that all states adopt a new 55mph maximum speed limit to continue receiving federal funding for road repair.

In 1979, the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards were keen on calibrating speedometers and odometers, but also required new cars sold in the US to circle or emphasize the 55 mph on their speedometers and show 85 mph as the top speed, despite no engine tuning that would limit a car to that speed.  It was certainly odd to see the 911 Turbos and Corvettes of the era with 85 mph speedometers.  This particular mandate was dialed back by 1982 and many automakers offered to retrofit their original speedometers to units showing triple-digit capability.

Speed Limits Today

The next big update in the United States happened when the National Highway System Designation Act of 1995 eliminated federal speed limit control and gave it back to states.  Half of the 50 states reverted to their pre-1974 speed limits, 8 went higher, and 17 went lower.  By the end of the millennium, Nevada and Montana no longer had unrestricted roadways but Texas was asking for higher speeds to cross remote areas.  As of 2011, State Highway 130 between Austin and San Antonio holds the highest posted speed limit in the country at 85mph.

Today, road speed limits seem to be increasing with automobile handling abilities, efficiency, safety ratings, and the prevalence of automated driving.  With safety of paramount importance, it will be interesting to see how close we get to the autobahn of Germany.  Here’s to the future of faster and safer journeys!

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