Slow Down! A Short History of Speed Limits

Speed Limits

Slow Down and Pull Over

You’re cruising carefree down the highway when suddenly you hear a familiar siren. The red and blue lights in your rearview window tell you everything you need to know. You slow down and pull your car to the side of the road. After a few questions from the officer, you’re free to go on your way – but not without first being slapped with a hefty ticket.

Sound familiar? It’s estimated that one in every six Americans is given a speeding ticket each year. That amounts to a lot of very frustrated drivers.

Regardless of how you feel about them, speed limits have become an integral part of driving and road history. Here’s a quick look back at some early speed limit laws, why they were implemented, and how they’ve changed over time.

Early Speed Limit Laws

While mass-produced cars were very much a 20th century development, speed regulations actually predate automobiles. In 1652, the American colony of New Amsterdam issued a law stating that wagons and carts could not be rode or driven at a gallop. The punishment for doing so? A fine of two pounds Flemish, which would be about $150 today.

In the UK, the Stage Carriage Act of 1832 made it an offense to endanger a passenger’s safety by ‘furious driving.’ A series of Locomotive Acts were later introduced which created even more speed regulations. The most restrictive of these being the 1865 act, which required all road locomotives, including automobiles, to travel at a maximum of 4 mph in the country and 2 mph in the city. Eventually, the Locomotives on Highways Act in 1896 would raise the speed limit to 14 mph.

Early efforts in the US to impose speed regulations for motor-vehicles began in 1901 in Connecticut, when a bill was passed that set the legal speed of motor vehicles to 12 mph in cities and 15 mph on country roads. Speed laws began to pop-up around the nation in a few places, but as late as 1930, 12 states did still not have any speed limits (28 states did not even require a driver’s license!). Across the US, the adoption of speed regulations was gradual and inconsistent across different regions.

The plight of speed limits was similar in the UK. For the most part, speed regulations were widely ignored, and actually even abolished in 1930. Eventually though, a new act would be introduced in 1934 that set a 30 mph limit in areas that were ‘built up,’ but no speed limit existed on motorways until 1965, when a national speed limit of 70 mph was imposed.

The National Limit of 55 mph

Rising fuel prices in the early 1970s resulted in many US states adopting speed limit laws in an effort to save money and resources. In 1974, President Nixon agreed to a national speed limit of 55 mph for all states. This law actually had a beneficial effect on traffic fatality rates, which dropped from 4.23 per million miles traveled in 1972, to 2.73 in 1983.

By the 1980s, the oil-crisis had ended, and the cost of fuel became less of an issue. The national speed limit was increased to 65 mph on rural interstates in 1987.

Not everyone was happy with the new national limit though. Since the early days of automobiles, there had been a debate around speed limits that boiled down to a case of freedom vs. regulation. Montana and Nevada, for example, have historically opposed speed limit laws. In 1995, the maximum national speed limit was abolished. Control of speed limit setting was given back to the individual states. Many would raise their speed limits to 70 mph or higher. 

Speed Limits Today

Whether for safety, fuel efficiency, or the environment, most places around the world today have some sort of speed regulations. While the limits might change from time to time, one things has remained the same – drive too fast and you might get a fine. So slow down, and be careful out there!

Here a few other interesting facts related to speed limits:

  • The first person to be convicted of speeding is believed to have been Walter Arnold of England. On January 28th, 1896, he was caught driving at a whopping 8 mph. He was fined 1 shilling.
  • Like to drive fast? A 40-mile section of toll road between Austin and San Antonio legally allows drivers to travel at 85 mph. This stretch of Texas highway has the highest limit in the US.
  • There’s no need to slow down if you’re driving along Germany’s Autobahn highway. This famous road system has no speed limits. Rural roads on the Isle of Man, and the Indian states of Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, and Telangana, also lack speed laws.
  • The World Health Organization lists speed limits as a factor in helping to reduce road casualties. Evidence suggests that higher speed limits lead to higher road fatalities in some places.
  • Switzerland doesn’t have fixed fines for speeding. Instead, fines are calculated based on the vehicle’s speed and the driver’s income. When a wealthy 37-year-old man was pulled over for going 186 mph on a highway with a speed limit of 74.5 mph, he had to pay a fine that equated to just over $1,000,000, the most expensive ticket ever. Switzerland is known for their neutrality, but you clearly don’t want to mess with them when it comes to speeding. 
Mark Heald

Mark Heald is an Associate Product Manager and Sporcle Admin. He enjoys spending time with his family, traveling, and bemoaning the fact the Sonics left Seattle.

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Mark Heald
About Mark Heald 147 Articles
Mark Heald is an Associate Product Manager and Sporcle Admin. He enjoys spending time with his family, traveling, and bemoaning the fact the Sonics left Seattle.