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Safety or Savings: Why We Have Speed Limits

By Natalie Josef, November 2, 2011

In 1901, Connecticut became the first state to pass a law regulating the speed of a motor vehicle. It limited cars to 12mph in cities, and 15 mph on rural roads. The law also required drivers to slow down when approaching a horse-drawn vehicle and stop completely if necessary to avoid scaring the horses.

From the 1900s to the 1970s, states set their own speed limits. Most states had a limit of 70mph, though some had limits of 75mph or none at all.

But this all changed in 1974, when Nixon signed the Emergency Highway Energy Conservation Act, which set a new national maximum speed limit of 55mph. From 1950 to 1972, the U.S. had enjoyed cheap oil prices from the Middle East, but the Arab-Israeli conflict dramatically changed this in 1973. Arab members of the Organization for Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) protested the West's support of Israel in the Yom Kippur war by stopping oil shipments to the U.S., Western Europe, and Japan. OPEC also quadrupled the price of oil. This embargo threw the U.S. and many European countries into a recession.

Nixon needed a way to conserve gas, so he drafted legislation to impose a national highway speed limit of 55mph in order to force drivers to be more fuel-efficient. However, since the federal government had no real authority to impose this limit, they withheld highway funds from states that did not adopt an official maximum speed limit of 55mph. Most states complied without objection, though many Western states, which have endless rural highways where 55mph feels like crawling, only complied grudgingly.

When the embargo was lifted in 1974, gas and oil prices were still high, which drove many to buy fuel-efficient Japanese cars. This trend continued until the late 1980s, when people started buying SUVs. But it wasn't until 1987, due to increasing public pressure, that limits were raised to 65 mph. By 1995, the federal government backed off completely and repealed the law, finally allowing states to set their own limits.

Today, most of us don't associate speed limits with saving fuel. Rather, speed limits translate into tickets, which means revenue for cash-strapped cities, especially since the economic downturn has backed nearly everyone into a financial corner. According to Chad Dornsife, the director of the Highway Safety Group, "Speed limits are supposed to be based on factual studies of traffic and what the majority of motorists deem as a safe speed. Now, the posted limit has become a revenue generator—not a safety device."

See the Top Ten Worst Cities to Speed In >>

Here are the current maximum speed limits by state:

 

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