The Need For Speed: A Brief History of Speed Limits


The Need For Speed: A Brief History of Speed Limits

You’re driving along the road and see the white sign stating that the speed limit is 50 miles per hour. Do you notice it? Do you heed it? Most people drive by without the slightest thought of speed limits, why we have them, and why they’re so important. However, speed limits have a long and interesting history worldwide, specifically where the United States is concerned. Let’s take a look at the history of speed limits and how they evolved to what we have today.

New York, 1652

The first speed limits weren’t imposed on cars, of course. Rather, they were imposed on horses and carriages. In 1652, New York deemed it unsafe and illegal for horses to travel any faster than a gallop. This was one of the first speed limits in the country.

Boston, 1757

If you were found to be riding your horse any faster than the standard walking pace of a pedestrian, you’d be fined 10 shillings.

UK, 1865

The first motor vehicle speed limit was imposed in the UK. Vehicles couldn’t travel faster than two miles per hour in the city and four miles per hour in rural areas. What’s more, cars had to be led by a pedestrian carrying a red flag. Remember that the next time traffic is moving too slow!

The First Speeding Ticket

The first speeding ticket was issued to a resident of Great Britain traveling at a blistering eight miles per hour. He was pursued, and caught, by a pedestrian on a bicycle.

Connecticut, May 21, 1901

Connecticut was the first state in the United States to adopt official speed limits. The speed limit was eight miles per hour in the city and 12 miles per hour anywhere else.

Detroit, 1914

The Detroit Free Press reported of a bridal party, including three children, whose vehicle flipped over or “turned turtle”, as the article called it, because they rounded a tight corner at 40 miles per hour. Drivers still didn’t understand the physics of driving at this point. This incident eventually became a case study used to explain centrifugal force in a driver safety manual.

Detroit, 1917

People in Detroit were still operating vehicles in an unsafe manner. In 1917, there were 65,000 motorists on the road in Detroit and its surrounding suburbs. That year, Detroit saw 7,171 accidents resulting in 168 deaths and countless injuries. Over 75 percent of the victims were pedestrians. Reports of vehicles smashing into groups of people, even children, due to the driver losing control were commonplace. There was even serious talk about whether or not vehicles should be classified as rabid animals and treated as such. Others believed that demons possessed the vehicles and efforts were made to ban cars. Eventually, public education became a priority and the mechanics and physics of driving were more widely understood. However, it was a contentious and confusing time in the history of speed limits and driving in general.

Speed Limits, Laser Guns, and Federal Laws

Even with all the mayhem happening, by the 1930s most states still didn’t have speed limits. However, most speed limits had been raised to a more reasonable 40 to 60 miles per hour by this point. Many states raised the then-legitimate point that there was no way to truly enforce speed laws, so why have them?

That changed in 1947 with the introduction of the laser gun. Police officers could now track vehicle speeds with reasonable accuracy and enforce those speeds. However, speed limits were still not a priority for most states.

Finally, in 1974, President Richard Nixon saw the danger of not having speed limits. At that time, the national traffic fatality rate was around 4.28 per million miles of travel. That might not seem like a lot, but consider that in 2015, the national traffic fatality rate was 1.22 fatalities – per 100 million miles of travel. Nixon decided that speed limits should be mandatory and that they should be set at 55 miles per hour. By 1983, the national traffic fatality rate had dropped to 2.73 fatalities per million miles of travel.

1995 – Federal Speed Limit Raised to 65 Miles per Hour

In 1995, the United States’ need for speed was evident in the national decision to raise the speed limit to 65 miles per hour. Ultimately, however, speed limit decisions were relegated to the discretion of the states. Currently, Texas has the highest speed limit in the country at 85 miles per hour.

Speed limit history is interesting and far-reaching. This is just a brief history of how we arrived at the current speed limit laws that are so ubiquitous in our society. Speed limits exist to protect us. Even in 1917, Detroit started seeing the repercussions of not having a speed limit. It’s unthinkable what would happen with our faster cars and advanced technologies now if we didn’t have them. However, sometimes we still break the law and make mistakes. Fortunately, lawyers who specialize in traffic law can help you defend yourself and obtain the best possible outcome if you do break a speed limit law and face serious consequences as a result.


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