You can blame Connecticut, the Nutmeg State, for all of your perceived speed-limit injustices. The fifth state in the Thirteen Colonies became the first to enact a speed limit law, signed into legislation on this day in 1901.
It was among the first laws aimed at motorized vehicles in general. In 1894 Vermont had implemented their imitation of Great Britain's Red Flag Act, where all motor carriages required a little man to walk in front waving a red flag to ensure that madness and mayhem would never befall bystanders. New York State had implemented something similar in 1886, and "it left a speed limit to city councils which usually set it at 6 miles per hour within the city," according to one source. (Allegedly, Pennsylvania nearly passed a law requiring motorists—when encountering errant livestock—to come to a complete stop, then completely disassemble their cars and hide the parts behind nearby bushes. The bill was vetoed by the governor.) And long before then, the colony of New Amsterdam in 1652 limited horse-drawn carriages to anything less than "a gallop."
Connecticut's law restricted cars to 12 miles per hour in the city, 15 in the countryside. For fin de siècle motorists, it could have been worse. Originally, Representative Robert Jeremiah Woodruff—the handsome fellow depicted here—had submitted a proposal to Connecticut's State General Assembly proposing limits of 8 and 12 miles per hour, within and outside of the city, respectively. When the bill passed in May of 1901, the limits were raised, but drivers were now forced to stop for horse-drawn carriages, all the best not to spook the baffled creatures.
In 1901 there were a mere 4,200 cars across America. They were vile, dangerous things. There were no streetlights, no traffic signals, no road markings, no licenses, and 39 manufacturers in the United States. The same year that the first statewide speed limit was enacted was also the first year of the license plate—handmade by owners to comply with New York regulations. (Two years later, Massachusetts became the first state to issue plates.) By 1909, there were 200,000 cars in America. If one gets the impression that lawmakers at the turn of the century were scrambling to reign in the boom that the motorized vehicle launched, then you'd have to explain to Woodruff the fact that at the turn of this century, some cars can drive themselves.
When the speed limit was first introduced, automobile clubs howled from state to state. A judge in Indiana famously knocked down a speed limit law in Kokomo, appeasing both Brock Yates and Brian Wilson alike. But our cars got faster, and our citizenry took to the car en masse, and our playboys grew arrogant behind the wheel of increasingly powerful machinery, ones that could do far more. Some could even reach lofty speeds of 55 miles per hour.
So, the speed limit was here to stay. And some have been cursing it ever since.
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