Whether they were set to save gas or save lives, speed limits have an oddly interesting history.
Say what you want about Sammy Hagar’s stint in Van Halen, his solo hit “I Can’t Drive 55” spoke directly to the lead foot in all of us, even to those of us who didn’t own a Ferrari 512 BBi. Back in 1974, President Nixon and the US Congress was making a young Sammy and the rest of America slow the heck down to exactly 55 mph. But before we get to the modern era of speed limit signs damping our fun or prolonging our road trips, a bit of background on the development of speed limit laws in the US.
Legal limits on the speed of road travel didn’t begin with the automobile. Laws penalizing excessive speed in horse carriages had been on the books for centuries before the advent of internal combustion. The first law regulating the speed of an automobile in the US was passed in Connecticut in 1901. The first speed limit restricted drivers to an urban speed of 12 mph and a rural speed of 15 mph.
Of course, what is defined as a safe speed has changed over time, closely tracking the advancement of automotive technology. Back in 1901, a 15-mph top speed made sense, given what automobiles were at the time. As cars sped up, the legal limits on their speed crept up too. And yet, as late as the 1930s, 12 states in the US still didn’t have speed limit laws.
A federal speed limit wouldn’t arrive until early 1974 when Pres. Nixon signed the Emergency Highway Energy Conservation Act into law. This was the beginning of the Oil Crisis in the US. In response to the West and Japan’s support for Israel in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, OPEC (Organization for Petroleum Exporting Countries) imposed an oil embargo. The response of US leaders was to create a national speed limit designed to reduce overall fuel consumption.
Though OPEC had lifted the embargo by March of 1974, gas prices remained high and the national speed limit of 55 mph on interstate highways remained. Though the 55-mph national speed limit didn’t prove to have much of an effect on national fuel consumption, it did lower traffic fatalities which dropped by 16.4 percent in 1974 compared to the year prior.
Two states in particular bristled at having the federal government tell them what was safe for their highways. Montana and Nevada had both gone without a legal limit for years and when the new 1974 law was introduced their implementation went against the spirit, if not the letter of the law. Montana’s speeding tickets weren’t classified as moving violations but instead were officially deemed “energy waste” violations which incurred a fine of $5. In Nevada, the same violation cost you $15.
The national speed limit was upped to 65 mph in 1987 but would remain in effect until 1995.
In 1995, Congress passed the National Highway System Designation Act, which returned speed limit regulation to the individual states. Many states, especially those with a lot of long open stretches of interstate, raised their limits to 75, 80, 85, and even 90 mph. Montana reverted to what they’d had on the books from 1955 through 1974. Speed limit signs in Montana now read, “Speed Limits: Day – Reasonable & Prudent, Truck – 65, Night – 65.” That’s right, you were legally limited to whatever speed you or any law enforcement nearby felt was “reasonable and prudent.”
While other states would gradually bring their speed limits back down to earth, it took a Montana Supreme Court battle to bring clarity (and sanity) to Montana’s speed limit. The vagaries of a “reasonable and prudent” standard weren’t popular with the Montana Supreme Court. In December of 1998, the court ruled Montana’s speed limit was too subjective, for both motorists and law enforcement officials. A new limit was set to 75 mph in 1999 and raised to 80 mph in 2015.
Today, states with the highest interstate speed limits are Nevada, Montana, South Dakota, all set at 80 mph. Specified sections of interstates in Idaho, Wyoming, and Texas are also set to 80 mph, with some in Texas set to 85 mph.
The most common speed limit among states is 70 mph. Northeastern states like Vermont, New York, New Jersey, and Rhode Island set theirs at 65 mph (which in New York metro is a joke they’re playing on out-of-towners). The bastion of freedom that is Alaska may surprise you. Theirs is set at 65 mph; we assume to reduce accidents involving wildlife. D.C. is the lowest of all, setting their urban interstate speed at 55 mph. Hawaii sets their interstate speed limits on the county level, though the highest is 60 mph. (But then, can they really be called “interstates” in Hawaii, shouldn’t they be intrastates?)