May 21: Not So Fast! – America’s First Speed Limit Law


Today in 1901, Connecticut became the first state in America to pass a law governing the speed of automobiles. According to the new law, cars were not to exceed 12 miles per hour within city limits and 15 miles per hour on rural or suburban roads, and were required to slow down whenever they approached an intersection. Since automobiles were still vastly outnumbered by horses and horse-drawn carriages in 1901, the law also governed the interaction between the two types of vehicles: Automobiles were to slow down upon approaching any horse in the road, and if the horse appeared frightened, the motor vehicle was required to come to a complete stop.

May 21 radar-g1-speed-limit-sign-15mph
The rural speed limit was set at 15mph, with hefty fines for violations

Technically, there had been speed limit laws passed earlier in American history — in colonial Boston and New York, magistrates passed laws that forbade riding horses at a gallop through city streets. Connecticut’s “Act Regulating the Speed of Motor Vehicles,” however, was the first speed limit law for automobiles.

Even though the parts of the law governing speed proved difficult to enforce, given the lack of accurate speed-measuring devices in 1901, the maximum penalty for breaking the law served as a sufficient deterrent. Violators could be fined up to $200 — which translates to nearly $6,000 in today’s dollars!

Further Reading

Setting Speed Limits,”

Randy Alfred, “May 21, 1901: Connecticut Sets First Speed Limit at 12 MPH,” Wired