Why Do We Have Speed Limits?
Published by Kaleb Bengston on Feb 4th 2022
A Quik History of Speed Limits
We’re all not the biggest fans of people who hang out in the left lane going exactly the speed limit. Sometimes the speed limits seem too slow for the road, or just plain arbitrary. Other times they seem too fast, like a 45MPH zone just outside your front porch. But why are those numbers assigned, and why do they exist in the first place? Great question, I’m glad you asked.
The first state in the nation to adopt a speed limit was Connecticut, with a top speed of 12 mph in the city and 15 mph on country roads. This was way back in 1901, when there were many more horses and buggies around than motor vehicles, by far. But this isn’t the first time in history a speed limit has been set. We can look back as far as 1652, when the American colony of New Amsterdam (now New York) passed a law stating, "No wagons, carts or sleighs shall be run, rode or driven at a gallop." The punishment was the equivalent of $150 in today’s money. In 1861, the first numerical speed limit was created in the United Kingdom for locomotives, set at a blistering 10 mph (16 kph for those of you across the pond).
As a side note, we have to mention our friends down under, Australia, who hold what seems to be the first-ever speeding ticket. In 1905, a man was reprimanded for “furious driving”, allegedly zipping past a tram at double its speed. This mad lad was going 20 mph.
Surprisingly, national speed limits are fairly new. Like, Richard Nixon new. Of course, speed limits imposed by cities, even states, have existed since the invention of motor vehicles, even earlier, but they were never mandated by the Federal Government in any sense. Until Nixon, of course. He instituted a national limit of 55 mph for all states in 1974. This was due to the cost of fuel rising and an attempt to conserve fuel and save money. Wide-open throttles, paired with the fuel efficiency of 70’s era cars, were not that conservative on fuel, and we were burning dinosaurs like there was no tomorrow. We didn’t really know how true that was going to be.
However, in 1995, the Federal Government gave that responsibility back to the states. Since then, 35 states have raised their highway speeds to 70 mph, or even higher. And some states, specifically Nevada and Montana, have been very lax on restrictive speed, imposing no or very little fines for speeding violations. Probably due to the lack of traffic in certain areas and flat, long roads.
Today, the fastest legal limit in the United States is in, you guessed it, Texas. There is a 40 mile stretch between San Antonio and Austin where the maximum legal speed is 85 mph. So you know there are people blistering down the road going 100+. You may also see minimum speed limits, which are there for the obvious reason of safety. Flying up on someone going 25 mph on the highway could be disastrous. Rarely, you may also see middle-speed limits. One example exists on the ice roads in Estonia, where it is advised to avoid driving at the speed of 16–25 mph as the vehicle may create a resonance that may induce the breaking of ice. This means that two sets of speeds are allowed: under 16 mph and between 25–43 mph. Pretty neat.
Adrian Lund, President of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety is quoted saying: “People want to go fast. Cars are built to go fast and states increasingly want to raise their speed limits. Even if it means saving just two or three minutes during a trip, people want to go faster.” And people do go faster. The only way to gather compliance for speed limits is if the public and people driving on said road agree that the limit is credible. We all know certain roads that seem too slow, and you end up with the mob mentality of “they can’t catch us all”.
So what’s limiting our governments from just letting people drive as fast as they want? There are a couple of reasons why we still have fairly slow speed limits in relation to how fast our vehicles move now. The biggest reason is, of course, safety. If we are to allow people to drive 80 mph or higher, we need to have national vehicle safety inspections. You can’t drive as fast as you want with a bad ball joint; it’s not safe for the driver or those around them. Any little unexpected adjustments going that fast can spell disaster and likely grievous injuries.
The second reason is our infrastructure. There’s a reason the fastest roads in this country are toll roads. Publicly maintained roads are simply not maintained well enough to support speeds like that. I’m sure we’ve all experienced sections of highways where we have to slow down lower than the posted speed limit to avoid damage to our vehicles. Toll roads, in theory, provide adequate funding to maintain the roads well enough to support speeds in excess of 70 mph.
So how do the German’s manage the Autobahn? The Autobahn is a road where the speed limit is your governor and there is no Highway Patrol to close your throttle. But contrary to popular belief, the Autobahn is not “limitless”. There are areas where there is no top speed, but there are many areas where there are speed limits. You would think this would cause safety issues, but Germany has this well thought out. In order to qualify for a license, citizens must meet certain requirements including basic first-aid training and extensive driving lessons. Including real-life, high-stress situations on the Autobahn. Applicants must also take a difficult multiple-choice exam and as well as a road test. In the end, better drivers equate to lesser accidents. It takes 6 months and $2000 dollars to qualify for a license in Germany. That’s quite the barrier to entry.
So the only thing stopping the US from achieving higher limits is… the US. The very thing creating and limiting speed limits are the very things that are against individual liberties, driven so deep in American culture that we can’t make the changes to make it possible. We create speed limits for safety, and the only reason we can’t increase the safety of our roads is that we don’t want to have vehicle inspections and higher fees to drive. And as always, let us know what you think! You can let us know and follow us on Facebook and Twitter to keep up with all of our blogs and deals on tools!