Reflections: How fast are you driving? Illinois marking 120th anniversary of its first speed limit law

Despite similar situations in the past, the spike in gasoline prices over the past several months seemed to cause quite a bit of angst. But a lot of us still remember the oil supply crisis of the 1970s, with soaring prices, lines at gasoline stations and the pervasive fear of running out of gas. Amazingly, that crisis hit its stride in 1973, exactly 50 years ago.

In response, lower speed limits were set to save energy during what was thought to be a time of permanently declining oil production. It turned out that energy companies encouraged talk of shortages to justify higher prices, and panicky drivers contributed by hoarding gas. But lower speed limits did save some fuel, encouraged the sale of fuel-efficient vehicles and had the added advantage of cutting highway traffic deaths because we found out speed really does kill.

For some, regulating highway speed was some sort of liberal plot to prevent freedom-loving vehicle owners from traveling as God intended: at top speed.

So in 1996, with the “shortages” of the 1970s in the rearview mirror, Congress decided there was no longer a need for a national speed limit. In response, states increased speed limits on divided highways, but were more reluctant to do so on two-lane roads because of the safety factor. In Montana, they eliminated speed limits altogether on interstate highways during clear weather for a while, although now the daytime interstate highway speed limit is 80 mph, not exactly slow.

Despite what some seem to believe, laws limiting speed are not creatures of relatively recent decades. Here in Illinois, for instance, speed limits and traffic regulations date to horse and buggy days.

Before 1903, regulating the speed of motor vehicles was not a state function. Local laws, however, prohibited racing horses and horse-drawn vehicles on public roadways. In addition, it was illegal to drive a horse across a bridge at a gait faster than a walk.

Regulation of motor vehicles had begun when farmers started using steam-powered tractors to power threshing machines. In 1885, in response to problems the new machines were creating by scaring horses pulling vehicles from buggies to heavy wagons, laws were passed requiring steam tractors on public roadways to stop within 100 yards of any person with a horse or other animal on that road. In addition, the law required the steam tractor driver to have a man walk at least 50, and no more than 200, yards ahead of the engine to control animals frightened by the engine. When crossing a bridge, two 2-by-12-foot planks, at least 12 feet long, were required to be placed under each wheel. Finally, blowing the steam engine’s whistle while on the highway was strictly prohibited.

With the invention of reliable internal combustion engines, more and more enthusiasts bought or built automobiles. In 1903, the year Oswego hobbyist A.P. Werve built and drove the village’s first automobile, the General Assembly passed the first act regulating motor vehicle speed.

The law went into effect July 1, 1903, and set the statewide speed for all motor vehicles at 15 mph, although municipalities could set speed limits on their own streets. Besides setting the state speed limit at 15 mph, the law mandated that drivers had to stop their vehicles immediately upon frightening a horse or other animal.

Four years later, in 1907, the General Assembly passed legislation requiring registration and the display of license plates by all motor vehicles. Vehicles also were required to have lights, horns and brakes – which, you have to admit, are handy things to have. The law set speed limits ranging from 6 mph while turning corners up to a blistering 20 mph on rural highways.

In 1909, state law addressed motorcycles for the first time, requiring “that no person shall drive a motor vehicle or motor bicycle ... at a speed greater than is reasonable and proper having regard to the traffic ... or so as to endanger the life or limb or injure the property of any person.” The statewide maximum speed limit was raised to 25 mph in 1911.

Revisions to the law passed in 1919 differentiated for the first time between autos, trucks and buses. Auto speed limits maxed out at 30 mph, while the maximum for trucks and buses ranged from 12 mph to 15 mph depending on weight and type of tires (hard rubber or pneumatic).

Thereafter, speed limits continued to climb. In 1923, the maximum for autos was set at 35 mph and 25 mph for trucks and buses weighing 15,000 pounds or less. In fact, the law prohibited owning a truck or bus capable of exceeding the maximum speed limit.

The 1931 revisions required all trucks and buses to maintain at least 500-foot intervals, something many of us would like to see today given the tendency of some truckers to ride the bumpers of slower drivers.

In 1935, the General Assembly did an entire rewrite of the state’s vehicle law. Auto speed limits were basically eliminated for rural highways, but the law did set them for municipal areas. However, the Department of Public Works and Buildings was empowered to alter speed limits on highways depending on engineering and traffic volume. Truck speeds continued to be set based on gross weight. Various revisions followed, and in 1951 the maximum highway speed for autos was set at 60 mph.

Then in 1957, statewide speed limits were completely overhauled. State-mandated maximum speeds ranged from 15 mph in alleys to 65 mph for autos on highways. Those limits pretty much stayed the same until 1974 when the federal Emergency Highway Energy Conservation Act set the national 55 mph limit. With the oil crunch receding, in April 1987, Congress allowed speed limits on certain interstates to rise to 65 mph, and the days of the old nationwide “Double Nickel” limit were numbered.

What’s all this mean? It’s always nice to add a little perspective: While the nationwide 55 mph limit may not have been the greatest thing, at least we weren’t required to have a flagger walk in front of us to control frightened animals.

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