On May 21, 1901, the Connecticut Legislature passed a speed limit law aimed at mitigating a brand-new menace on the roads: the automobile.
It was the first numerical speed limit in the United States, and it was first enacted in Connecticut for a reason. Horseless carriage manufacturers were springing up all across turn-of-the-century New England, and New Englanders were buying – and driving -- their products.
A 1917 trade publication refers to New England as ‘the great manufacturing center’ of the early days of the industry. By 1901, new cars were made from the Pawtucket Steamboat Co. in Pawtucket, R.I., to the Lane and Dailey Motor Co. in Barre, Vt.
Western Massachusetts and Connecticut were especially fertile territory for ambitious automotive startups. Frank Duryea built automobiles with internal combustion engines in several western Massachusetts factories, while The Holyoke Automobile Co. was making the Tourist Surrey and the Tourer in Holyoke, Mass. The Loomis Auto Car Co. in Westfield, Mass., produced the Loomis Runabout. Hartford’s leading auto manufacturer, the Columbia Automobile Company was pumping out hundreds of touring cars, runabouts and ‘gasoline electric vehicles.’
Siteamer manufacturers proliferated as steam engines had been around for awhile and their technology was well understood. By 1901, the Locomobile Company had just moved from Watertown, Mass., to Bridgeport, Conn., to mass-produce the finicky steam cars. Steamers were also made in New Haven, Conn., by the Kidder Motor Vehicle Co. ; in Melrose, Mass., by the Clark Automobile Co.; in Easton, Mass., by the Eclipse Automobile Co.; in Chicopee Falls, Mass., by the Overman Automobile Co.; and in Keene, N.H., by the Keene Automobile Co.
Taking It To Heart
For many, the newfangled machines were an unwelcome disruption to New England's pastoral landscape. A Vermont farmer wrote that his horses took the arrival of the automobile much to heart.
My hostler did almost as much kicking as his four-footed charges. He insisted that he had to hunt for the horses in the hay loft, because they invariably went up the feed spout every time I started the engine in the stable: and when I asked him to wash the automobile, he fainted dead away, and revived only long enough to give his notice of departure.
Connecticut Rep. Robert Woodruff also took the arrival of the automobile much to heart. In 1901, he introduced a bill limiting motor vehicles to speeds of 8 mph in cities and 12 mph in the country.
That was a little too draconian for the Legislature, which raised the limit. Motor vehicles were not to go faster than 12 mph on city streets and 15 mph on country roads, according to Chapter 69 Public Acts of the State of Connecticut 1901.
However, drivers had to slow down when approaching or passing horse-drawn vehicles. To avoid scaring the animals, they had to come to a complete stop.
Not All That New
Limiting travelers’ speed on roadways wasn’t a new idea. In 1652, the colony of New Amsterdam (New York) imposed a stiff fine of two pounds Flemish, or about $150, on wagons, carts and sleighs driven at a gallop.
In the 1820s, Boston Mayor Josiah Quincy III was apprehended by the night watchman for speeding around the city on his sorrel horse.
The mayor was probably stopped because of an ordinance passed by Boston selectmen on Aug. 1, 1757, that ‘no Coach Slay Chair Chaise or other Carriage shall at such times, be drive at a greater Rate than a foot Pace…”
The selectmen’s reasoning? “Great Dangers arising oftentimes from Coaches Slays Chairs and other Carriages on the Lord’s days, as the People are going to, or coming from several Churches in this town, being driven with great Rapidity, and the Publick Worship being oftentimes much disturbed by such Carriages driving by the sides of Churches with great force in time thereof.”
The fine was 10 shillings. There is no record of whether Mayor Quincy received a ticket.
Two years after Connecticut passed the first speed limit, New York adopted the first comprehensive traffic code. Other states followed suit.
At least automobile drivers had a few years to enjoy the roads with some degree of freedom: The traffic light didn’t arrive in the U.S. until 1914, when the first was installed in Cleveland, Ohio.