National Maximum Speed Law

National Maximum Speed Law
55 mph speed limit being erected in response to the National Maximum Speed Law.

The National Maximum Speed Law (NMSL) in the United States was a provision of the 1974 Emergency Highway Energy Conservation Act that prohibited speed limits higher than 55 miles per hour (89 km/h). It was drafted in response to oil price spikes and supply disruptions during the 1973 oil crisis. While gasoline consumption was expected to fall by 2.2%, the United States Department of Transportation calculated actual savings at 1%. The law was widely disregarded by motorists and most states subversively opposed the law. Actions ranged from proposing deals for exemption to minimizing speed limit enforcement. The NMSL was modified in 1987 and 1988 to allow up to 65 mph (105 km/h) limits on certain roads. Congress repealed the NMSL in 1995, fully restoring authority to determine the maximum speed limits for each state to the states.

The law's safety benefit is disputed, with some researchers finding no benefit and others finding a benefit.



Historically, the power to set speed limits belonged to the states. Immediately before the National Maximum Speed Law became effective, speed limits were as high as 75 mph (121 km/h).[1] (Kansas had lowered its turnpike speed limit from 80 before 1974.) Montana and Nevada generally posted no numeric speed limit on rural roads.

1973—55 mph National Speed Limit

A sign next to a highway says "Speed Limit 50". A newspaper in the foreground has an article about the new speed limit.
In 1973, Congress enacted a national speed limit of 55 mph (89 km/h). Some states, such as Washington, enacted lower speed limits.

As of November 20, 1973, several states had modified speed limits:[2]

  • 50 mph (80 km/h): Rhode Island, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Vermont, and Washington
  • 55 mph (89 km/h): North Carolina and Oregon
  • California lowered some 70 mph (110 km/h) limits to 65 mph (105 km/h).
  • In late November 1973, Texas Governor Dolph Briscoe recommended adoption of a 55 mph (89 km/h) statewide limit.[3] On December 4, the Texas Highway Commission, with a 3-0 vote, adopted this 55 mph (89 km/h) speed limit, citing unsafe speed differentials between the flow of traffic and people driving too slowly to comply with President Nixon's and Governor Briscoe's requests for voluntary slowdowns. The legality of the measure was questioned, and two Texas legislators threatened to sue to block the limit.[4] However, by December 6, Texas Attorney General John Hill ruled that the speed reduction "'was in excess' of the commissioners' legal power," citing that a 1943 Texas Attorney General's opinion held that the legislature holds the power to set the statewide speed limit and the Commission's authority was limited to changing it in specific locales where safety factors required lower limits.[5]

As an emergency response to the 1973 oil crisis, on November 26, 1973, President Richard Nixon proposed a national 50 mph (80 km/h) speed limit for passenger vehicles and a 55 mph speed limit for trucks and buses. That, combined with a ban on ornamental lighting, no gasoline sales on Sunday, and a 15% cut in gasoline production, were proposed to reduce total gas consumption by 200,000 barrels a day, representing a 2.2% drop from annualized 1973 gasoline consumption levels.[6][a] Nixon partly based this on a belief that cars achieve maximum efficiency between 40 and 50 mph (64 and 80 km/h) and that trucks and buses were most efficient at 55 mph (89 km/h).[8]

The California Trucking Association, the then-largest trucking association in the United States, opposed differential speed limits on grounds that they are "not wise from a safety standpoint."[9]


The Emergency Highway Energy Conservation Act was a bill in the U.S. Congress that enacted the National Maximum Speed Law.[10] States had to agree to the limit if they desired to receive federal funding for highway repair. The uniform speed limit was signed into law by President Nixon on January 2, 1974, and became effective 60 days later,[11] by requiring the limit as a condition of each state receiving highway funds, a use of the Commerce Clause of the United States Constitution.[12]

The legislation required 55 mph (89 km/h) speed limits on all four-lane divided highways unless the road had a lower limit before November 1, 1973. In some cases, like the New York Thruway, the 50 mph (80 km/h) speed limit had to be raised to comply with the law. The law capped speed limits at 55 mph (89 km/h) on all other roads.[11]

A survey by the Associated Press found that, as of the Wednesday, January 2, 1974:[11]

  • 12 states already had maximum speed limits of 55 mph (89 km/h).
  • Nine states had maximum speed limits of 50 mph (80 km/h).
  • 29 states had to lower limits.

This includes some states that voluntarily lowered their limits in advance of the federal requirement.

On May 12, 1974, the United States Senate defeated a proposal by Senator Robert Dole to raise the speed limit to 60 mph (97 km/h).[13]

Safety impact

The limit's effect on highway safety is unclear. During the time the law was enacted and after it was repealed automobile fatalities decreased,[14] and this was widely attributed mainly to automobile safety improvements, owing to an increase in the safety of cars themselves.[15] This secular decrease in fatalities from automobile accidents makes figuring out the actual impact of the law difficult.

According to the National Academies of Science, when the law took effect there was a decrease in fatalities of about 4000 lives after the law took effect.[16][17] Later, the National Academies wrote that that is, "a strong link between vehicle speed and crash severity [which] supports the need for setting maximum limits on high-speed roads," but that, "the available data do not provide an adequate basis for precisely quantifying the effects that changes in speed limits have on driving speeds, safety, and travel time on different kinds of roads." They also note that on rural interstates, the free flowing traffic speed should be the major determinant of the speed limit because, "Drivers typically can anticipate appropriate driving speeds." This is due, in part, to the strong access control in these areas but also is an acknowledgement of the difficulty of enforcing speed laws in these areas.[18]

A Cato Institute report showed that the safety record worsened in the first few months of the new speed limits, suggesting that the fatality drop found by the NRC was a statistical anomaly that regressed to the mean by 1978.[19] After the oil crisis abated, the NMSL was retained mainly due to the possible safety aspect.[citation needed]

Insurance Institute for Highway Safety workers wrote three papers that argue that increase from 55 to 65 mph (89 to 105 km/h) on rural roads led to a 25% to 30% increase in deaths (1/3 from increased travel, 2/3 from increased speed) [17] while the full repeal in 1995 led to a further 15% increase to fatalities.[17] In contrasting work, researchers at University of California Transportation Science Center argue that the interstates in question are only part of the equation, one also must account for traffic moving off the relatively more dangerous country roads and onto the relatively safer interstates. Accounting for this they find that raising rural speed limits to 65 mph (105 km/h) caused a 3.4% to 5.1% decrease in fatalities.[20]

Fuel savings

In 1986, the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, reported that the United States Department of Transportation's Office of Driver Research found total fuel savings to be 1% and that "independent studies" found a 0.5% savings.[21]

Opposition and noncompliance

The NMSL was wildly unpopular. To wit:

  • The speed limit had very low compliance, contrary to one practice that says that the speed limit should criminalize only the fastest 15% of drivers:
    • From April through June 1982, speed was monitored on New York's Interstate highways, and an 83% noncompliance rate was found, despite extreme penalties ranging from $100 (1982 dollars, equal to $228 today) or 30 days jail on a first offense to $500 (1982 dollars, equal to $1,138 today), up to 180 days in jail, and a six-month driver's license revocation upon third conviction in 18 months.[22]
    • In the 4th quarter of 1988, 85% of drivers violated the 55 mph (89 km/h) speed limits on Connecticut rural interstates.[23]
    • In 1985, the Texas's State Department of Highways and Public Transportation surveyed motorist speeds at 101 locations on six types of urban and rural roads. It found that 82.2% of motorists violated the speed limit on rural interstates, 67.2% violated speed limits on urban interstates, and 61.6% violated speed limits on all roads.[24][25]
  • Various states enacted legal measures to tiptoe around the 55 mph limit:
    • Arizona, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, and Utah replaced traditional speeding fines with $5–$15 energy wasting fines as long as drivers did not exceed the speed limit in effect before the 55 mph federal requirement.[22]
      • Nevada's energy wasting fine was enacted on April 15, 1981, when signed by Governor Robert List. Motorists not exceeding 70 mph (110 km/h) in 55 mph (89 km/h) zones could be issued $5 "energy wasting" fines. However, standard speeding tickets were still allowed and "troopers were directed not to take the new law as a signal to stop writing tickets".[26]
    • In 1986, North Dakota's fine for speeding up to 15 mph (24 km/h) over the limit was only $15 and had no license points.[27]
    • South Dakota cut speeding fines in 1985 and stopped assessing points for being 10 mph (16 km/h) or less above the speed limit in 1986.[27]
    • August 1, 1986, Minnesota, which normally suspended licenses after three tickets, stopped counting speeding tickets for no more than 65 mph (105 km/h).[27]
  • In 1981, 33 state legislatures debated measures to oppose the NMSL.[22]
  • Some law enforcement officials openly questioned the speed limit. In 1986, Jerry Baum, director of the South Dakota Highway Patrol, said "Why must I have a trooper stationed on an interstate, at 10 in the morning, worried about a guy driving 60 mph on a system designed to be traveled at 70? He could be out on a Friday night watching for drunken drivers."[27]
  • Even organizations supporting the NMSL, such as the American Automobile Association (AAA) provided lists of locations where the limit was strictly enforced.[22]
  • On June 1, 1986, Nevada ignored the NMSL by posting a 70 mph (110 km/h) limit on 3 miles (5 km) of Interstate 80. The Nevada statute authorizing this speed limit included language that invalidated itself if the federal government suspended transportation funding. Indeed, the Federal Highway Administration immediately withheld highway funding, which automatically invalidated the statute by its own terms.[12]

1987 and 1988—65 mph limit

In the April 2, 1987, Surface Transportation and Uniform Relocation Assistance Act, Congress permitted states to raise speed limits to 65 mph (105 km/h) on rural Interstate highways.[12] In a bill that passed in mid-December 1987, Congress allowed certain non-Interstate rural roads built to Interstate standards to have the higher speed limits. As of December 29, 1987, the states of California, Florida, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky and Oklahoma had applied for and been accepted into this program. The program was originally slated to last four years.[28]

Reclassified roads

A few roads that weren't Interstate Highways but were built to Interstate standards were redesignated as Interstate Highways to qualify for the increased speed limit:

  • Kansas petitioned the Federal Highway Administration on May 14, 1987, to "designate the turnpike as an Interstate Highway between Topeka and Emporia". This Kansas Turnpike segment had existed since 1956 without a numerical designation. Interstate status was granted, Interstate 335 was designated, and the 65 mph speed limit signs went up.[29]
  • Western Interstate 88 in Illinois had previously been designated as Illinois Route 5.
  • 50 miles (80 km) of the Maine Turnpike between Portland and West Gardiner were designated as Interstate 495 in 1988. The designation for this segment was changed in 2004 to Interstate 95 to simplify the Interstate numbering scheme in Maine.[30]

1995—Repeal of federal limits

Congress lifted all federal speed limit controls in the November 28, 1995, National Highway Designation Act, returning all speed limit determination authority to the states. Several states immediately reverted to already existing laws. For example, most Texas rural limits that were above 55 mph (89 km/h) in 1974 immediately reverted to 70 mph (110 km/h), causing some legal confusion before the new signs were posted. Montana reverted to non-numerical speed limits on most rural highways, although its legislature adopted 75 mph (121 km/h) as a limit in 1999. Hawaii was the last state to raise its speed limit when, in response to public outcry after an experiment with traffic enforcement cameras in 2002, it raised the maximum speed limit on parts of Interstates H-1 and H-3 to 60 mph (97 km/h).[31]

Despite repeal of federal speed limit controls, current maximum speed limits are on average lower than in 1974[32]:

  • States with same speed limit as pre-1974: 25[b]
  • States with higher speed limit than pre-1974: 8
  • States with lower speed limits than pre-1974: 17[c]

85 mph speedometers

On September 1, 1979, in a regulation that also regulated speedometer and odometer accuracy, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) required speedometers to have special emphasis on the number 55 and a maximum speed of 85 mph (137 km/h). However, on October 22, 1981, NHTSA proposed eliminating speedometer and odometer rules because they were "unlikely to yield significant safety benefits" and "[a] highlighted '55' on a speedometer scale adds little to the information provided to the driver by a roadside speed limit sign."[33][34][35]

Popular culture


  1. ^ The 2.2% drop figure was calculated by finding daily consumption to be 9,299,684 barrels of petroleum. Obtain 1973's petroleum consumption from transportation sector at 2.1e from the Energy Consumption by Sector section, then convert to barrels using A1 in the Thermal Conversion Factors section (assume "conventional motor gasoline" since ethanol-based or purportedly smog-reducing gas was not common in 1973).[7]
  2. ^ Includes Texas where the same pre-1974 speed limits are applicable on the vast majority of rural roads despite some 75 and 80 mph limits.
  3. ^ Includes Virginia where the vast majority of rural freeways have a 65 mph (105 km/h) limit.


  1. ^ "Daytime Speed Limits". States' Attitudes Toward Speed Limits. Reasonable Drivers Unanimous. March 9, 1998. Retrieved August 1, 2011. 
  2. ^ Lindsey, Robert (November 20, 1973). "Nation Is Living on Less Energy For Travel, Heating and Lights". The New York Times: p. 1. Retrieved July 22, 2008.  (subscription required)
  3. ^ "Speed Limit on State Agenda". Associated Press. December 3, 1973. Retrieved July 22, 2008.  (subscription required)
  4. ^ "Texas Commission OKs 55 MPH Limit". Associated Press. December 5, 1973. Retrieved july 22, 2008.  (subscription required)
  5. ^ Kinch, Jr., Sam (December 6, 1973). "Lower Speed Limit Not Legal, Hill Rules". The Dallas Morning News: p. 1. Retrieved July 22, 2008.  (subscription required)
  6. ^ Cowan, Edward (November 27. 1973). "Politics and Energy: Nixon's Silence on Rationing Reflects Hope That Austerity Can Be Avoided". The New York Times: p. 30. Retrieved July 22, 2008.  (subscription required)
  7. ^ Staff (June 28, 2008) (PDF). Annual Energy Review (2007 ed.). Washington, DC: Energy Information Administration. 
  8. ^ "55 Mile-per-hour Speed Limit Approved by House". United Press International. December 4, 1973. p. 30. Retrieved July 22, 2008.  (subscription required)
  9. ^ "Unequal Limits Hit". United Press International. November 30, 1973. Retrieved July 22, 2008.  (subscription required)
  10. ^ Travel Mode Improvement Program staff. "Chapter 8. Transition to Short-Term Planning". TMIP: Urban Transportation Planning In the United States: An Historical Overview. US Department of Transportation. Archived from the original on April 8, 2009. Retrieved July 22, 2008. 
  11. ^ a b c "Nixon Approves Limit of 55 MPH". The New York Times: pp. 1, 24. January 3, 1974. Retrieved July 22, 2008.  (subscription required)
  12. ^ a b c "Brief For The Respondents In Opposition". Nevada v. Skinner. Archived from the original on November 28, 20101. Retrieved August 1, 2011. 
  13. ^ Cowan, Edward (May 14, 1974). "Senate Rejects a Rise in Speed Limits on Highways to 60 MPH from 55". The New York Times: p. 74. Retrieved July 22, 2008.  (subscription required)
  14. ^ Morrow, Adrian (April 5, 2011). "US Motorists Enjoy Least Deadly Driving Year Since 1949". The Globe and Mail (Toronto). Retrieved August 1, 2011. 
  15. ^ McFeatters, Ann (September 14, 1986). "Critics say auto safety laws not worth cost". Houston Chronicle. Scripps-Howard News Service: p. 18. Retrieved July 22, 2008. 
  16. ^ McFeatters, Ann (September 14, 1986). "Critics say auto safety laws not worth cost". Houston Chronicle. Scripps-Howard News Service: p. 18. Retrieved July 22, 2008. 
  17. ^ a b c Staff (May 2011). "Q&A: Speed and speed limits". Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Retrieved August 1, 2011. , citing Transportation Research Board. 1984. 55: a decade of experience. Special Report 204. Washington, DC., available for purchase online at [1]
  18. ^ "Road Conditions Vary Too Widely For Single Approach to Speed Limits". Transportation Research Board. National Research Council. Oct. 1, 1998. Retrieved 3 November 2011. 
  19. ^ Moore, Stephen (May 31, 1999). "Speed Doesn't Kill: The Repeal of the 55-MPH Speed Limit". Cato Institute. pp. 7–9. Retrieved April 19, 2007. 
  20. ^ Lave, Charles; Elias, Patrick. "Did the 65 MPH Speed Limit Save Lives?" (PDF). Accident Analysis and Prevention (Amsterdam: Elsevier) 26 (1): 49–62. ISSN 0001-4575. 
  21. ^ Copulos, Milton R. (September 9, 1986). "The High Cost of the 55 MPH Speed Limit" (PDF). The Backgrounder (Washington, DC: The Heritage Foundation) (532): 1–8. Retrieved August 1, 2011. 
  22. ^ a b c d Grimes, Paul (December 26, 1982). "Practical Traveler: The 55-MPH Speed Limit". The New York Times. Retrieved August 1, 2011. 
  23. ^ Hamilton, Robert A. (May 7, 1989). "85% of Drivers on Interstates Are Speeders". The New York Times. Retrieved August 1, 2011. 
  24. ^ "Speeders in Majority on Texas Highways". Houston Chronicle. United Press International: p. 12. January 9, 1987. Retrieved August 1, 2011. 
  25. ^ Robison, Clay (June 15, 1986). "55 MPH Law Violated, but Unlikely to Change". Houston Chronicle: p. 2. Retrieved August 1, 2011. 
  26. ^ "Nevada Speeders Getting $5 'Energy Wasting' Fines". The New York Times. Associated Press. April 16, 1981. Retrieved August 1, 2011. 
  27. ^ a b c d "Some States Trying to Skirt Federally Mandated 55 MPH Speed Limit". Houston Chronicle: p. 3. April 14, 1986. Retrieved August 1, 2011. 
  28. ^ Molotsky, Irvin (December 29. 1987). "20 States to Win the Right to Set a 65 MPH Speed". The New York Times. Retrieved August 1, 2011. 
  29. ^ "65 MPH Approved for Route". Wichita Eagle-Beacon. October 24, 1987. .
  30. ^ "It's Time To Clear Up the Confusion: Maine Interstate Redesignation 2004" (PDF). Maine Department of Transportation and Maine Turnpike Authority. 2004. Retrieved August 1, 2011. 
  31. ^ Antone, Rod (April 18, 2002). "State Approves Higher Speed Limits". Honolulu Star-Bulletin. Retrieved August 1, 2011. 
  32. ^ Staff. "Summary Chart". States' Attitudes Towards Speed Limits. Reasonable Drivers Unanimous. Retrieved August 1, 2011. 
  33. ^ Kramer, Larry (March 10, 1978). "Odometer Security Rules Due". Washington Post: p. B11. Retrieved July 22, 2008.  (subscription required)
  34. ^ National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (effective September 1, 1979). 49 C.F.R. 571.127 "Standard No. 127 Speedometers and Odometers." Retrieved August 1, 2011.
  35. ^ Conlon, Michael J. (October 22, 1981). "Speedometer Rules Slated for Scrapping". United Press International. Retrieved July 22, 2008.  (subscription required)

Further reading

  • Singell, Larry D.; McNown, Robert F. (October 1985). "A Cost-Benefit Analysis of the 55 MPH Speed Limit: Reply". Southern Economic Journal (Chapel Hill, NC: Southern Economic Association, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) 52 (2): 550–553. doi:10.2307/1059644. ISSN 0038-4038. JSTOR 1059644. 
  • Clotfelter, Charles T.; Hahn, John C. (June 1978). "Assessing the 55 MPH National Speed Limit". Policy Sciences (Springer Netherlands) 9 (3): 281–294. doi:10.1007/BF00136831. ISSN 0032-2687. 

External links

External images
"Photograph of 55 mph speed limit replacing a 70 mph limit". February 12, 1974. 
"Photograph of KSDOT workers changing a 75 mph sign to 55 mph". 1974. 

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