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Justifying Speed

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This is a guest post by David Mao, Law Librarian of Congress.

A speeding car races around the Summit Point Motorsports Park in Summit Point, WV. [Photo by Flickr user ac4lt]
Recently, I had the chance to drive fast—Autobahn fast—and it was legal.  Most drivers (typically male) dream of driving with no limit to speed; however, unless one is on a race track or private road (as I was), that generally is not possible in the United States.  Curious about the history of speed limits in the United States, I searched online for more information.  The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) website gives the following history of modern speed limit laws in the United States:

Speed limit laws, which date to 1901, traditionally have been the responsibility of the states.  Before 1973, when Congress responded to oil shortages by directing the U.S. Department of Transportation to withhold highway funds from states that did not adopt a maximum speed limit of 55 mph, speed limits on rural interstates in most states ranged from 65 to 75 mph, with the majority of states setting rural interstate speed limits of 70 mph. In urban areas, most states maintained 55 mph speed limits before the national maximum speed limit was established . . .

The National Highway System Designation Act of 1995 repealed the maximum speed limit, allowing states to set their own limits for the first time since 1974. Many states quickly moved to raise speed limits on both rural and urban interstates and limited access roads.  As of July 2012, 35 states had raised speed limits to 70 mph or higher on some portion of their roadway systems.  On some rural sections of interstates in Texas and Utah speed limits are 80 mph.  The Texas state legislature has authorized speed limits of up to 85 mph on highways originally constructed and designed to accommodate the higher speed.  As of July 2012, the Texas Department of Transportation has stated that it will conduct engineering studies near the portions of Highway 130, still under construction, to determine whether 85 mph is a reasonable speed limit.

On other websites, I found additional historical claims, such as naming Connecticut the state that enacted the 1901 law, and competing assertions for the “first” speed limit law in North America.

How accurate, though, was the information I found?  Working at the Library of Congress has its benefits.  With the world’s largest collection of legal information in the Law Library and the vast holdings of the Library of Congress at my fingertips, I was able to easily and quickly locate authoritative primary and secondary sources to verify the information I found online.

On June 27, 1652, the Director and council of New Netherland, “in order to prevent accidents,” passed an ordinance stating that “no Wagons, Carts, or Sleighs shall be run, rode or driven at a gallop with this city of New Amsterdam, that the drivers and conductors of Wagons, Carts and Sleighs with this city shall not sit or stand on them but now henceforth within this City (the Broad Highway alone excepted) shall walk by the Wagons, Carts or Sleighs and so take and lead the horses…”  (Laws and Ordinance of New Netherland, 1638-1674.)

Over one hundred years later on August 1, 1757, the Boston Selectmen noted that “Great Dangers arising oftentimes from Coaches Slays Chairs and other Carriages on the Lord’s days, as the People are going to, or coming from several Churches in this town, being driven with great Rapidity, and the Publick Worship being oftentimes much disturbed by such Carriages driving by the sides of Churches with great force in time thereof.”  They therefore “voted and Ordered that no Coach Slay Chair Chaise or other Carriage shall at such times, be drive at a greater Rate than a foot Pace…” (A Report of the Record Commissioners of the City of Boston, Containing the Boston Town Records, 1742 to 1757.)

On May 21, 1901, the state of Connecticut enacted a law that “No motor vehicle shall be run on any highway or public places outside the limits of a city at a speed to exceed fifteen miles an hour, and no such vehicle shall, on any highway or public place within the limits of any city, be run at a speed to exceed twelve miles an hour.”  (Chapter 69 Public Acts of the State of Connecticut 1901.)

On January 2, 1974, President Richard Nixon signed Public Law 93-239, the Emergency Highway Energy Conservation Act.  The Act prohibited speed limits higher than 55 miles per hour (89 km/h) and was drafted in response to oil price spikes and supply disruptions during the 1973 oil crisis.

On November 28, 1995, President Bill Clinton signed Public Law 104-59, the National Highway System Designation Act of 1995. Among other things, the Act repealed the national maximum speed limit compliance program.

As for the federal laws, the Law Library is the repository for the complete collection of U.S. federal laws including the bills, hearings, reports and other documents generated by the U.S. Congress.  Thus, examples of relevant Law Library legislative resources for the above two federal laws include the following:

  • House Document 93-187, Message from the President of the United States Concerning the Energy Crisis (November 12, 1973)
  • To Conserve Energy on the National System of Interstate and Defense Highways: Hearing before the House Committee on Public Works, Subcommittee on Energy (November 27, 1973)
  • House Report 93-677 (November 29, 1973)
  • Transportation and the New Energy Policies: Hearing before the Senate Committee on Public Works, Subcommittee on Transportation (December 11, 1973)
  • Senate Report 93-628 (December 20, 1973)
  • National Highway System Designation Act of 1995: Hearings before the Subcommittee on Transportation and Infrastructure of the Committee on Environment and Public Works (February 23 and March 23, 1995)
  • House Report 104-345 (November 15, 1995)
  • President Clinton’s Statement on Signing the National Highway System Designation Act of 1995 (November 28, 1995)

So what are the speed limits if there is no longer a national maximum speed limit law?  The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety provides a state-by-state listing of maximum posted speed limits on its website.  Do you want to confirm the information provided in the table?  The Law Library of Congress has primary legal resources that will allow you to do so.

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