By Ryan Lee Price
For Jacob German, Saturday, May 20, 1899, began like any other. He donned his uniform, unplugged his electric taxicab and started collecting fares for the Electric Vehicle Company in New York City. For unrecorded reasons, Mr. German was hurtling down Lexington Avenue in Manhattan at 12mph, four miles per hour above the speed limit. He was pulled over by a policeman on a bicycle and arrested. He didn’t receive a speeding ticket, as they hadn’t yet been invented (that first goes to Harry Myers in Dayton, Ohio, in 1904), but he became the first person in the United States to be cited for speeding (albeit under an outdated law written for non-motorized vehicles).
Speeding limits in the United States have been on the books since 1652, with the colony of New Amsterdam’s selectmen issuing a declaration that “no wagons, carts or sleighs shall be run, rode or driven at a gallop.” The fine was approximately $150 in today’s money. One hundred years later, the city council of Boston set a Sunday speed limit for carriages, horses and wagons at a walking pace.
New York City was the first to adopt a comprehensive traffic code in 1903, and in 1909, for example, Washington enforced a 12mph speed limit on straight roads and 4mph on curves. However, as late as 1930, a dozen states had no speed limits at all, while 28 states did not even require a driver's license to operate a motor vehicle. As cars have increased in ability through the years, so have speed limits and other traffic related laws. However, speed limits and rules governing the use of public roads had always been up to the individual states. For example, some California highways were at 70mph; turnpike speed limits in Kansas had been as high as 80mph, while Montana and Nevada had no posted speed limits and instead relied on the concept of “basic rule” -- that drivers are required to drive at a safe speed for conditions.
A pivotal milestone in the history of speed limits in the United States happened on January 2, 1974, when President Nixon signed the Emergency Highway Energy Conservation Act, a government reaction to the 1973 Oil Crisis. Included in the legislature was the National Maximum Speed Law, setting the maximum speed limit at 55mph throughout the country, trumping all state laws regarding speed limits.
The National Maximum Speed Law (NMSL) affected 29 states that had to lower their limits, while nine states actually had to raise their speed limits from 50mph. The remaining 12 states already had 55-mph speed limits. The anticipated result was that gas consumption would fall by 2.2 percent from the previous year, and states must comply in order to receive Federal funds for highway repair. Interestingly, Montana complied with the change, but did so by charging only $5 for exceeding the new speed limit.
In a effort to enforce the 55-mph law, on September 1, 1979, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) required that speedometers emphasize the number 55 (by either a highlighted color, placing it at the top of the gauge, or both). Two years later, the NHTSA concluded that an emphasized “55” is “unlikely to yield significant safety benefits” and “…adds little to the information provided to the driver by a roadside speed limit sign.” However, for model years to come, the appearance of speedometers would echo this change with the “55” at the top of the gauge.
Pressure from the states, public and lobbyists would begin to erode the NMSL during the early half of the 1980s. As part of a 1987 highway funding bill, Congress permitted the states to raise their speed limits from 55 to 65 mph on certain interstates. This was due to falling gasoline prices and a reduced need to save energy, as well as a widespread noncompliance with the Federal speed limit.
It was not until December 8, 1995, that the NMSL was repealed entirely by Congress in the National Highway Designation Act. One of the most compelling arguments made by members of Congress in favor of repealing the federal speed limit law was that it violated states’ rights to set their own limits as they wished. Despite loud opposition from safety, medical, and insurance groups, the Senate repealed the Federal speed limit law by a vote of 80 to 16. Congress did not mandate that speed limits must be raised; it merely allowed states to raise the speed limits as they saw fit.
And most states saw fit immediately. All but Hawaii returned the speed limits to pre-1974 limits (Hawaii raised the speed limits on some stretches of freeway to 60mph in 2002). Montana was the only state to revert to no posted daytime speed limit beyond the “reasonable and prudent.” However, after the Montana Supreme Court decided that the “reasonable and prudent” was too vague, Montana's legislature imposed a 75-mph limit on rural freeways in 1999.
In 1983, on his way to Lake Placid in a rental car at two in the morning, Sammy Hagar (of Van Halen fame) was pulled over for speeding. In a 1994 interview, Hagar remembers: “Cop stopped me for doing 62 on a four-lane road when there was no one else in sight. Then the guy gave me a ticket. I was doing 62. And he said, 'We give tickets around here for over 60.' And I said, 'I can't drive 55!' I grabbed a paper and a pen, and I swear the guy was writing the ticket and I was writing the lyrics.”
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, an estimated 100,000 people per day are cited for speeding in the United States, with an average cost of $150 per ticket, generating around $15 million per day or around $5.5 billion per year in revenue.
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Not only is Ryan Lee Price a freelance writer specializing in automotive journalism and a former long-time magazine editor, he is part of the technical editorial team that provides content for most all of the ChiltonPRO and ChiltonDIY products. He currently resides in Corona, California, with his wife Kara and their two children.