May 21

This Day in History

Automotive

May 21, 1901:

Connecticut enacts first speed-limit law

On this day in 1901, Connecticut becomes the first state to pass a law regulating motor vehicles, limiting their speed to 12 mph in cities and 15 mph on country roads.

Speed limits had been set earlier in the United States for non-motorized vehicles: In 1652, the colony of New Amsterdam (now New York) issued a decree stating that "[N]o wagons, carts or sleighs shall be run, rode or driven at a gallop" at the risk of incurring a fine starting at "two pounds Flemish," or about $150 in today's currency. In 1899, the New York City cabdriver Jacob German was arrested for driving his electric taxi at 12 mph. The path to Connecticut's 1901 speed limit legislation began when Representative Robert Woodruff submitted a bill to the State General Assembly proposing a motor-vehicles speed limit of 8 mph within city limits and 12 mph outside. The law passed in May 1901 specified higher speed limits but required drivers to slow down upon approaching or passing horse-drawn vehicles, and come to a complete stop if necessary to avoid scaring the animals.

On the heels of this landmark legislation, New York City introduced the world's first comprehensive traffic code in 1903. Adoption of speed regulations and other traffic codes was a slow and uneven process across the nation, however. As late as 1930, a dozen states had no speed limit, while 28 states did not even require a driver's license to operate a motor vehicle. Rising fuel prices contributed to the lowering of speed limits in several states in the early 1970s, and in January 1974 President Richard Nixon signed a national speed limit of 55 mph into law. These measures led to a welcome reduction in the nation's traffic fatality rate, which dropped from 4.28 per million miles of travel in 1972 to 3.33 in 1974 and a low of 2.73 in 1983.

Concerns about fuel availability and cost later subsided, and in 1987 Congress allowed states to increase speed limits on rural interstates to 65 mph. The National Highway System Designation Act of 1995 repealed the maximum speed limit. This returned control of setting speed limits to the states, many of which soon raised the limits to 70 mph and higher on a portion of their roads, including rural and urban interstates and limited access roads.

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