It’s often said that life a long time ago was simpler, sometimes better. Anyone who has argued that highway speed limits are not sufficiently high enough must envy the days before the government enacted strict speed boundaries. In theory, a world without speed limits is appealing. But in practice, this scenario would lead to unmitigated chaos.


Call It a Limit Before delving any deeper, it should be noted that speed limits are not limits in the minds of most drivers. Drivers interpret the posted number in a variety of ways. Some go 1, 2, 5, 10 mph over or adapt to the fluid flow of traffic. However, we’re not here to encourage speeding. In fact, we’re calling for a strict interpretation of speed limits—where the limit is (gasp!) the limit.

Short History There’s some dispute surrounding the first American speed limit, but one thing is certain: it predates the formation of the United States. One such limit in Boston, passed in 1757, regulated Sunday carriage traffic. It wasn’t a number back then, but instead a “know it when you see it” type limit. Residents were instructed not to exceed a standard gait without suffering a fine of 10 shillings. Another “limit,” from 1652 in New York, then New Amsterdam, prohibited citizens from moving wagons or carriages faster than a gallop or face a hefty penalty. Connecticut issued the first modern speed limit aimed at cars in 1901—12 mph in cities and 15 mph on country roads.

Economic Impact The 1973 oil crisis (when prices of the commodity saw a massive increase) severely impacted speed limits in the United States. In order to conserve resources and cut costs across the country, the federal government enacted the National Maximum Speed Law. In all fifty states, 55 mph was the top speed limit allowed. After prices began to stabilize, the maximum was bumped up to 65 mph in 1987. The law was repealed in 1995, giving the power to set speed limits back to individual states.

Speed Superlatives While many states still top out at 55 mph, there remain roads for true speed demons. In certain stretches of rural Texas, drivers are permitted to drive at the breakneck pace of 85 mph.

Freedom Ever since the earliest days of driving, the desire for speed has been prevalent. The freedom of the road, often romanticized in film and music, runs counter to the realities associated with necessary government regulation. Our urge to drive fast must be held in check by coexistence. Highways are not for individuals, but all of us. Cars provide us with the autonomy many crave, balanced by driving laws that consider the community at large. Slowing down isn’t usually our natural inclination, regardless of how much safer it is. Drivers push the limits, just as automotive technology does, with each striving to go faster. But the limits are there for the good of the whole.

Do you think speed limits are too slow, too fast or just right? Share in the comments below.