I Feel the Need for Speed
May 20, 1899: New York City cab driver, Jacob German is arrested and jailed for speeding. His electric taxi was moving at the horrific rate of twelve miles per hour. This led to the first enactment of a speed limit for cars in the US. Connecticut passed a law in 1901 limiting speeds to 12 mph in the city and a much more lenient speed of 15 mph outside city limits. It was not the first speed limit in the New World. In 1652, New Amsterdam passed a law against wagons, carts, and sleighs being run, rode, or driven at a gallop. Drivers and conductors of wagons, carts, and sleighs within the city had to walk next to their vehicles and lead the horse, or be fined what would amount to about $150 today. Fines were doubled and tripled on subsequent infractions and restitution for damages was also enforced.
Up until 1973, speed limits were set by each state rather than for the country as a whole. Some states had limits as high as 75 mph with Kansas lowering to this speed from 80 mph. In 1973, there was an oil crisis when in October OPEC nations plus Egypt, Syria, and Tunisia declared an oil embargo. This was retaliation for the US’s resupply of the Israeli military during the Yom Kippur war. The embargo stayed in place until March 1974.
By the end of November 1973, the country was feeling the effects of a limited crude oil supply. President Nixon proposed a 50 mph national speed limit for cars while trucks and buses could speed along at 55 mph. He also wanted to ban ornamental lighting and gasoline sales on Sunday. Other measures were listed, as well. Truckers stated different speed limits for different vehicle types were not safe. Nixon signed the Emergency Highway Energy Conservation Act on January 2, 1974 and made it mandatory to lower limits to 55 mph if states wanted to receive federal funding for road repair.
The drop in speed limits were supposed to save gas during this crisis but were also supposed to saves lives as we all traveled at safer speeds. There was, according to one study, an 83% noncompliance rate with the new law. Speeding tickets were lucrative for the patrols monitoring the nation’s highways. Some states were less amenable to federal interference and while they lowered the speed limits, they did not enforce them. There were minimal fines unless one was ticketed for exceeding the speed limits than had been in place before the enactment of the Act. The law was repealed in 1995 with many states resuming their limits pre-1974, a few raising them, and few lowering them.
“A lot of cars are built to go faster than the speed limit allows, but that doesn’t mean it’s legal to do so.” – Wayne Dellinger
“I have never had an accident, but I really have to be cautious. I drive slower now, and I also watch the speed limit.” – Arlene Melton
“There’s already a law in place for speed limits, and that’s a safe operating speed. It (a speed limit) doesn’t solve a darn thing. We just knew it was a Band-Aid fix to a much larger problem.” – Jim Marsh
“The speed limit will be 22 miles per hour, day-to-day, and 28 (mph) for corporate outings and go-cart clubs. At 22 mph, you’ll think you’re flying.” – Dan Taylor