What US states have no speed limit?
Lawmakers in some states see a need for higher speed limits
April 19, 2023 Updated Wed., April 19, 2023 at 8:22 p.m.
By Leigh Giangreco Stateline.org
Ohio Republican Gov. Mike DeWine didn’t mince words last month when he weighed in on a legislative plan to increase speed limits on certain Ohio highways: He was a no.
“Every expert that you talk to can tell you that the data clearly shows that if we increase the speed limit, even only by 5 miles per hour, there will be people who will die in Ohio that would not have died if we kept the speed limit where it is today,” DeWine told reporters.
Ohio lawmakers abandoned the speed limit proposal. But in at least five other states – Indiana, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota and West Virginia – state legislators have pushed similar speed limit hikes this year, even as traffic fatalities have climbed to their highest level in nearly two decades.
There were 43,000 traffic deaths across the country in 2021, a 16-year high, according to data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Most American drivers spent less time in their vehicles during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic. But those who did drive the emptier streets were more likely to engage in dangerous behaviors such as texting, speeding, running red lights and driving under the influence, according to a 2022 report from the American Automobile Association.
“It’s the worst possible time to be raising the maximum speed limit on any road in the U.S.,” said Jacob Nelson, director of traffic safety, advocacy and research at AAA.
Road fatalities are up despite infrastructure countermeasures such as rumble strips and state legislation prohibiting dangerous behaviors such as texting while driving, Nelson added.
While it’s true that advanced assistance technologies on newer vehicles have made driving safer, the average age of an American’s car is a little over 12 years old, “which means that only the wealthiest Americans can access vehicles that have these technologies on them,” Nelson said.
Even with an advanced car, said Chuck Farmer, vice president of research and statistical services at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, drivers who speed decrease the time available to correct their mistakes or react to the actions of other drivers.
“Then once you do react, your brakes take longer to stop the car because you’re going faster, and should you hit something, you’re going to hit it with a lot more energy,” Farmer said.
“That increases your chance of injury and death.”
But supporters of higher limits dismiss the idea that relaxing the rules will lead to more fatalities; some even argue the opposite.
While some drivers try to follow speed limits, they point out, many others ignore them if a higher speed seems safe and appropriate on a particular road. This can prompt the drivers who want to go faster to weave through traffic as they try to pass slower vehicles.
“Slower driving is absolutely safer,” Stephen Boyles, a civil engineering professor at the University of Texas at Austin, wrote in an email to Stateline. “However, there are questions about whether lowering a speed limit actually slows down drivers. Differences in speeds among drivers are also dangerous: it leads to tailgating, lane changing, passing, and other dangerous maneuvers.”
Boyles said many engineers recommend a “rational speed limit” approach, based on observing traffic and setting the limit to the 85th percentile, or picking a limit so that only 1 in 7 vehicles is driving faster than that.
In New York state, Republican state Sen. Thomas O’Mara emphasized the dangers of speed differences in pushing a bill that would increase the maximum speed limit on certain roads from 65 mph to 70 mph. O’Mara represents some or all of five rural counties in western New York along the Pennsylvania border. He emphasizes that the change would apply to roads in districts like his, rather than in congested urban areas.
“This would, I believe, put vehicles more within a similar speed range … as well as just doing something that would maybe make New Yorkers lives just a little bit easier by being able to get to their destination faster,” O’Mara said of his bill.
At least eight states have speed limits on rural instates that go up to 80 mph on certain segments, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
The higher limits are particularly popular in Western states such as Nevada, South Dakota and Utah.
Some states, including Montana and Nevada, had no speed limits at all until 1974, when Congress and President Richard Nixon set a maximum of 55 mph on all interstate roads. A desire to save energy in the wake of the 1973 oil embargo, not safety, was the impetus for the 55-mph limit. But road fatalities dropped by 16.4% between 1973 and 1974.
The federal government leaned on states to comply with the speed limit law by tying it to highway funding.
But in 1995, the new Republican majority in Congress approved legislation repealing the federal limit, framing it as a states’ rights issue. Insurance and environmental lobbyists, as well as former President Bill Clinton’s transportation secretary, opposed the bill, but Clinton reluctantly signed it.
Overnight, speed limits in many Western states shot back up to 70 mph or higher .
The continued push for higher speed limits on rural highways comes at a time when more pedestrian and safety advocates are calling for lower speed limits on arterials and local roads, especially where pedestrians and cyclists are sharing the road with cars, Nelson said.
Environmentalists around the globe also are pushing for lower limits, even in places where speed is lauded as an integral part of the culture. In Germany, for example, where the Autobahn famously has no speed limit at all, environmentalists point to a recent government study showing that setting a limit of 120 kilometers per hour, or about 75 mph, would cut emissions by 6.7 million tons each year.
Still, in some states the data is mixed on the connection between higher speed limits and fatalities. In South Dakota, for example, lawmakers in 2015 raised the state’s maximum speed limit to 80 mph. After the change, South Dakota police issued more citations for extreme speed, 100 mph or higher, according to a 2017 analysis from the Argus Leader.
But in South Dakota, it’s not clear that speed was the leading cause of crashes. In 2015, 20.7% of fatal crashes in the state were speed-related compared with 33% in 2016. The rate dropped to 20.7% in 2017 and then climbed to 33.6% the following year.
Speed was involved in 27% of fatal crashes in the first year of the pandemic, the state reported, and 23% the second.
Some lawmakers across the border in North Dakota saw their southern neighbor as a model. North Dakota Republican state Rep. Ben Koppelman introduced a bill this year that would have raised the state’s highway speed limit from 75 mph to 80 mph, arguing that its flat geography made it an ideal place for increased interstate speeds.
“If we all wanted to be safe all the time, we’d never leave our homes. And if we wanted to be 95% safe all the time, we’d all drive 20 mph and be wrapped in bubble wrap,” Koppelman said. “But the point is, we’re talking about statistical data.
“It’s individual freedom and it’s individual responsibility,” he added. “If we wanted the government to make all the decisions in our life for us, we would just computerize everything in our lives and have your car operate itself like it’s the subway.”
North Dakota Republican Gov. Doug Burgum wasn’t convinced. In late March, he vetoed Koppelman’s bill, arguing that the higher speed limit would increase the risk of speed-related crashes and conflict with his administration’s Vision Zero initiative, which aims to eliminate fatalities caused by motor vehicles .
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Driving in the USA
No country is more synonymous with driving than the USA. From its major coastal cities to the rural interior, empty deserts and tropical lowlands, a road trip across the country can feel like you’re visiting different nations with their own identities. Learn all you need to hit the road safely with our no-nonsense guide to driving in the USA.
While America’s roads are generally safe, and most trips are incident-free, getting to grips with local driving laws will help you avoid any trouble on the road.
Before you hit the highways, let’s cover the essentials that visitors ought to know before driving in the USA.
Roads in the USA
There are over four million miles of roads in the USA and most of these are two-lane rural highways. That said, less than 0.5% of the US is covered by paved roads. America’s road network is generally good, although a lack of infrastructure investment over the past few decades has resulted in a lot of unfixed wear and tear, so watch out for potholes while driving.
Knowing the different kinds of roads in the USA is very useful when working out your route. Let’s look at the main types of roads in the USA.
These are the main arteries that connect the country. American interstates are high-speed roads with no cross traffic or junctions; you normally join the traffic via an on-ramp. Only automobiles are allowed on Interstates – bicycles, for instance, are prohibited.
Interstates are laid out in a rough grid that traverses the country. Even numbers indicate east-west routes (lower numbers on the southern coast and Mexican border) and odd numbers indicate north-south routes (lower numbers on the Pacific coast). Interstates have a two-digit number, while roads with a three-digit number are feeder roads for a major interstate.
You’ll recognise interstate signs by their iconic blue shield with a red crest.
Freeways are a kind of Interstate road too, but they are often found in urban areas and are designed for high-speed driving. They also never have toll booths – hence the name freeway.
Also known as US Routes or US Highways, American numbered highways were the original interstates, until they were replaced in the 1950s. You’ll see junctions and traffic lights as you drive along them. Like Interstates, highways are also laid out in a grid across the country, but with the numbering system reversed.
You’ll recognise a numbered highway by the white badge on a black background.
These are the next level down and are usually quieter roads. State highways often have a lower speed limit, and are designed and managed by the state. The typical sign is a white circle on a square black background, although many states have their own unique design – such as an outline of the state with the road number in the middle.
Scenic byways are, as the name suggests, scenic routes which are maintained by the state. Many traverse national parks and other areas of interest, and usually have their own unique signage.
How to drive in the USA
If you’ve not driven on the right before, this will be the biggest thing to get used to, but if you hire an American car, everything will be set up for driving on this side. When renting a car, think about where you plan to drive and the season.
Most cars in the US are automatic, so you won’t be using a gear stick.
Many US roads could do with some resurfacing, so watch out for potholes. Also, America has almost no roundabouts – instead people will enter traffic at junctions. Many accidents happen at junctions when drivers don’t spot other cars coming into the lane, so try to slow down and make sure anyone entering traffic has seen you – the same goes for when you enter the flow.
USA driving rules
Drivers and passengers must wear seatbelts and abide by strict speed limits. In most states, the alcohol limit for drivers is 0.08% blood alcohol concentration but some states issue penalties for drivers with a blood alcohol concentration of 0.05% (these are less severe).
Most states have the same rules, but you should double check for any idiosyncrasies with that state’s Department for Motor Vehicles.
What side of the road does America drive on?
Americans drive on the right-hand side of the road. If you rent a car, it will be set up for right-side driving, so you’ll need to adjust to the steering wheel being on the left-hand side of the car.
Who has right of way?
America has some unfamiliar rules when it comes to right of way.
- Whoever arrives at a junction first gets to go ahead
- You can turn right on a red light – as long as you briefly stop the car before turning right
- Drivers can overtake on either side on multi-lane routes
- It is the custom to allow people on slip roads space to enter
- Pedestrians only have the right of way at any specially designated pedestrian crossings
What is the speed limit in the USA?
The maximum speed limit on rural interstate highways is 70mph, with a 45mph minimum.
On four-lane divided highways, the limit is 65mph, and on all other highways it’s 55mph.
If you are driving through a designated school zone, you must drop to 15mph. These aren’t always clearly signposted, so pay attention in any urban areas. Many highway traffic police will hide in bushes waiting for speeding cars.
Driving in adverse conditions
Tourists driving in the USA should be able to avoid any unfortunate incidents by using common sense – if a road is flooded, avoid it, if there’s fog, slow down. Check the weather in advance. If you’re driving in snowy conditions, take sensible precautions, such as packing snow chains and a torch. In hurricane season, listen to the news for warnings and advice – if the police tell people not to drive, don’t do it.
Other important rules for driving in the USA
By and large, you should be fine following common sense, but make sure you abide by the following driving rules:
- Watch out for High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes. They’re restricted to vehicles carrying a minimum number of passengers. Penalties for using them illegally can be high.
- Don’t park in the following places: disabled spaces (unless you’re authorised to do so), in front of red or yellow kerbs, on a white line at a bus stop or within 10ft either side of a fire hydrant.
- If you’re travelling with a baby or young child, make sure they’re travelling in an approved car or booster seat.
- Look out for stationary school buses with flashing lights. It’s illegal to overtake them.
Driving hazards in the USA
One of the major causes of accidents in America is people not spotting one another when entering state highways, so always take precautions at junctions. Other hazards to watch out for include:
- Deer and large animals wandering into the road
- Getting lost – always bring a map in case your GPS fails
- Severe storms – generally it’s best to avoid driving and head for shelter
If anything goes wrong while you’re driving, you should call your rental car company. If it’s an emergency, the US emergency services can be contacted on 911.
For further reading, your first stop should be the US government’s web page for visiting drivers or check out Rough Guides.