Rules of the Road: Jalopnik's Guide to Speed Limits

With the first street legal Koenigsegg CCX arriving in the U.S. this week, we thought there couldn't be a better time to review the current status of speed limit laws. Sammy Hagar may not have been able to drive 55, but the CCX can go approximately three times faster than the highest legal speed limit in the U.S.

Federal Speed Limits

This post would be a lot shorter, had it not been for the repeal of the National Maximum Speed Law, which was put forth near the start of the ever popular Malaise Era, which also brought us the Pinto and Chevette. A common misconception is that this law went into effect under Carter, but it was actually Nixon who put it into effect (as well as OSHA and the EPA).

The law was unpopular in many areas (thus the Sammy Hagar song), but it managed to stick around, with a few challenges, mostly intact until the glorious year 1987 when Congress allowed states to extend their speed limits to 65 mph in certain rural interstate areas and later even to certain roads built to those standards. This was part of the Surface Transportation and Uniform Relocation Assistance Act, which involved the only veto of a highway bill in the 20th century. Reagan's opposition to the bill had nothing to do with the speed limit and everything to do with politics, but was eventually overturned.

It wasn't until the National Highway Designation Act of 1995 that the federal law was completely repealed, by a Republican congress and a Democratic president. At that point many states laws immediately switched back to previous speed limits (causing a bit of confusion in Texas)

State Laws

There are basically four main buckets of state speed limits: 60 mph, 65 mph, 70 mph and 75 mph. As always, there are exceptions, but we'll deal with those a little later. The only state to have a speed limit at 60 mph is Hawaii, and that's only on certain roads.

As seen in the map above, most of northeast, Illinois, Minnesota, Ohio and Oregon (also Alaska) have the lower top speeds of 65 mph. Historically, there's not much of a strong push for faster speed limits in these areas as the roads are congested and you can easily cross nearly a dozen states in a day's worth of driving. There are also many legislatures that are more sensitive to emissions concerns and fuel consumption than further west.

The majority of the country lives under the 70 mph speed limit, including California and Washington. With the exception of Kansas and Texas, the states between the central plains and the west coast have the highest mandates normal speed limits at 75 mph. If you've ever had to drive through Oklahoma you'll know that extra five mph makes a big difference.

Texas

We're native Texans and thus we can poke a little fun at Texas here. Texans like to be special, and so we have our own extra special speed limit laws. Though most of the state is under the 70 mph speed limit, there are exceptions.

For the purposes of reducing pollution and keeping people from killing each other, both the Dallas-Fort Worth Metro and Houston Metro Areas have interstate speed limits that vary from place to place dependent on where you are, but are generally below 65 mph. Other portions of the state can go as high as 75 mph, including the only 75 mph two lane speed limits in the country (we've driven them and there's nothing more fun than seeing a dually F-550 barreling in your direction at that speed).

Other portions of the state, specifically rural areas with lower populations and well constructed portions of Interstate 10 (as you'll see on the map), can get as high as 80 mph, making it the fastest legal stretch of public roads in the United States. Yee Haw!

Montana

There was once a time in Montana when the speed limit on certain rural areas for cars was merely set as "reasonable and prudent," which makes so much sense it could only happen in Montana. This meant for about three years Montana was America's answer to the Autobahn. This was all until someone contested a ticket because the ruling was vague and violated due process, thus requiring the state to vote in a new speed limit.

Types of Speed Limits

There are three variations on speed limits, though it doesn't have an overwhelming impact on whether or not your getting a ticket. Most states have absolute limits, which means that you're getting a ticket no matter what your reason for going over was. States with prima facie laws (RI, TX and UT) will allow you to go over the speed limit if you can prove the speed was safe, but this rarely holds up. Many states have a mix, but limits are such that your chances of disputing under the law are limited. A full description can be found here.

Toll Roads

Toll Road Authorities are often strange quasi-governmental bodies of the type that give Alex Jones and Ron Paul fans paranoid nightmares. And the scariest of these nightmares, to us at least, is that toll roads would be able to increase their speeds and lower the speeds of competing highways. The private operators would then pay the state more money for this change. It's crazy, but it's sadly true.

Conclusion

Speed limits apply to state and federal roads for many reasons, especially so that we can reduce the risk of getting crushed by idiots in their oversized trucks going much faster than they can drive. As nice as it would be to have speed limits tied to driving ability, that's not going to happen anytime soon. That being said, there are plenty of private roads where there are no speed limits. They're called race tracks.