Today in History: 55 MPH Maximum Speed Limit Requirement for All Fifty States Abolished
by M.C. Millman
On this day in history, November 28, 1995, President Bill Clinton signed the act that would repeal the 55 mph speed limit requirement, which had been law for the past two decades across the United States.
The new act returned control of speed limits to individual states, allowing each location to decide if it would allow its drivers to exceed the previously mandated maximum speed of 55 mph.
Speed limit laws have been around for centuries. In 1652, the colony of New Amsterdam, which later became New York, issued a speed limit law stating that wagons, carts, and sleighs were not allowed to proceed at a gallop. Violators were penalized two pounds Flemish, which would be around $150 today.
The first state to pass a measurable speed limit law was Connecticut in 1901. The legal speed of motor vehicles was limited to 12 mph in cities and 15 mph on country roads.
In 1903, New York City was credited with introducing America's first comprehensive traffic code, including speed limits.
The 55 mph speed limit became law when President Richard M. Nixon signed legislation lowering the national speed limit in 1974. The president imposed the new law in response to the push for Americans to save fuel due to the 1973 oil crisis, which created long lines at gas stations.
An unintended benefit of the new law was the drop in the traffic fatality rate from 4.28 per million miles traveled in 1972 to 2.73 in 1983.
However, once fuel availability and cost were no longer an issue, the push for repealing the 55 mph speed limit was on and Clinton made sure to be the one to sign the new law given that it had the overwhelming support of Congress. This was despite the protests of safety, environmental, and insurance groups due to concerns that higher speed limits would lead to more highway fatalities.
The speed limit change became effective ten days later. Eight states, including California and Texas, had already passed laws to allow drivers to drive at 70 or 75 mph, while Montana had no speed limit at all. Subsequently, 35 states increased their limits to 70 mph or higher.
According to the Washington Post, the day after the new law abolishing the speed limit was passed, "The speed limit is one of the country's most ignored laws, especially in the West."
Transportation Department studies claimed that there would be 6,400 additional deaths a year, leading to $19 billion in increased health costs due to raising the speed limit.
Activist Ralph Nader was quoted in the Washington Post railing against both President Clinton and Congress for the additional deaths the new law would lead to. "History will never forgive him and his allies in Congress for this assault on the sanctity of human life," Nader said.