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May 21, 1901: Connecticut Sets First Speed Limit at 12 MPH

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May 21, 1901: Connecticut Sets First Speed Limit at 12 MPH
1901: Connecticut passes the first U.S. state law regulating motor vehicles. It sets a speed limit of 12 mph in cities and a whopping 15 mph outside.
The law was not the first U.S. speed limit, just the first for automobiles. New Amsterdam (which was yet to become New York City) decreed in 1652:
[N]o wagons, carts or sleighs shall be run, rode or driven at a gallop [and] that the drivers and conductors of all wagons, carts and sleighs within this city (the Broad Highway alone excepted) shall walk by the wagons, carts or sleighs and so take and lead the horses, on the penalty of two pounds Flemish [about $150 in today's money] for the first time, and for the second time double, and for the third time to be arbitrarily corrected therefor and in addition to be responsible for all damages which may arise therefrom."
Arrests for speeding in motor vehicles also precede the Connecticut law. Cabbie Jacob German was arrested and jailed in New York City May 20, 1899, for driving his electric taxi at the "breakneck speed" of 12 mph.
The very word automobile was a new entry in the English language. When Connecticut passed its speeding-driver law, it was less than two years since the first use of the term in a major U.S. newspaper. Cleveland Plain Dealer reporter Charles Shanks used the French word automobile in a series of articles starting May 22, 1899. The name soon caught on, replacing the backward-looking horseless carriage.
State Rep. Robert Woodruff originally submitted a bill to Connecticut's General Assembly that set a motor-vehicles speed limit of 8 mph within city limits and a full 12 mph on country highways.
As passed, the law upped those limits a few miles per hour, but it specified that a driver must reduce his speed when meeting or passing a horse-drawn vehicle, and come to a complete stop if needed to avoid frightening the horses.
How widely -- or how well -- the law was enforced is a puzzle. Speedometers were among the latest bells and whistles for the automotive first adopters of the day. English mathematician Charles Babbage, he of the difference engine, had invented a railway speedometer in the mid-19th century. The first known auto manufactured with a speedometer was the curved-dash 1901 Oldsmobile, from the very year of the Connecticut speed limit. But the fancy device remained a luxury option at least through the first decade of the 20th century.
Today, speed limits are sometimes the product of precise engineering (.pdf) and sometimes of the global politics and economics that drive the price of oil.
Connecticut continued to introduce innovations in automobile regulation. In 1937, it became the first state to issue permanent license plates, rather than replacing them with new ones every year.
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