This Day in History: Interesting Fun Fact

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

Speed limits had been established earlier in the United States, but only for non-motorized vehicles. In 1652, the colony of New Amsterdam (presently New York) issued an order stating that “No wagons, carts or sleighs shall be run, rode or driven at a gallop,” or else the driver would incur a fine of no less than “two pounds Flemish.” In 1899, the New York City cabdriver Jacob German was arrested for driving his electric taxi at 12 mph.

The path to the law begin enacted in 1901 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 of the limits. The law passed in May 1901 specified higher speed limits but required drivers to slow down when approaching or passing horse-drawn vehicles, and come to a complete stop if necessary to prevent scaring the animals.

New York City introduced the world’s first comprehensive traffic code two years later. However, adoption of speed regulations and other traffic codes was a slow and bumpy process across the nation. As late as 1930, a dozen states still had no speed limit, while 28 states did not even require a driver’s license to operate a motor vehicle. Rising fuel prices played a key role in the lowering of speed limits in various states in the early 1970s, and in January 1974 President Richard Nixon signed into law a national speed limit of 55 mph. Consequently, these measures led to a reduction in the country's traffic fatality rate.

Concerns about fuel cost and availability later waned, 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 The National Highway System Designation Act of 1995 repealed the maximum speed limit.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.

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