The Locomotives on Highways Act 1896 was the first to allow motor cars to travel on public roads without the need for an escort walking ahead of the vehicle (originally waving a red flag, although that had already been abolished). The speed limit was also set at this point, at 14mph. The Horseless Age: A Monthly Journal Devoted to Motor Interests offered an opinion on the new law, in Volume II, Number 1, published in New York in November, 1896.
The New Motor Law in England
The most important event of the past month was the going into effect in England, on Nov. 14, of the new Act of Parliament legalizing the use of motor vehicles on the common roads of that country. The special regulations under which the new vehicle is to be introduced were referred by Parliament to the Local Government Board, a body which has superior facilities for examining into the details of a public question of this kind. The result of the Board’s deliberations, made known immediately upon the act going into effect, is reprinted on another page of this issue.
The sum and substance of these provisions may be reduced roughly to the general axiom that the vehicle must be at all times under the control of its operator, and that the speed at which it may be allowed to travel depends upon its weight and the conditions of the road. As this general axiom is now thoroughly understood by drivers of horses, little educational work will be necessary in making the change from horse vehicles to motor vehicles. The minor specifications of the rules, such as the number and efficiency of brakes, lamps, consideration for others using the highway, etc., etc., are only such as common sense would dictate and custom fortunately has long since made second nature to us. The key to the temper of the Board’s work can be taken from the following clause: “He shall not drive the light locomotive at any speed greater than is reasonable.” Thus is the entire matter referred to the good sense of the promotors of the new industry, to whose interest it manifestly is, though habit were forgot, to avoid antagonizing the conservative forces that oppose the innovation.
But London Engineering does not take this view of the situation. Its peace is disturbed by visions of slaughtered pedestrians and shattered vehicles, because of the latitude the Board has given as regards the speed at which a motor vehicle may be driven. In its imagination the new vehicle grows into a veritable juggernaut, sweeping through the streets at top speed, regardless of the conditions of the highway and the rights of other users thereof.
A heavy vehicle weighing several tons, says Engineering, would not be likely to do any harm at 7 miles an hour, but at 14 miles an hour it would become a fearful menace to life and limb. This is undoubtedly true, but it is pertinent to ask the question, who, with the exception of the editor of Engineering, imagines that anybody will be guilty of such madness as to run a heavy vehicle at such speed? Is it reasonable to assume that citizens, sober and sensible today, will become idiots or maniacs tomorrow merely because they manage motors instead of horses? Who imagines that anybody will be guilty of such madness as to run a heavy vehicle at such speed? Is it reasonable to assume that citizens, sober and sensible today, will become idiots or maniacs tomorrow merely because they manage motors instead of horses?
The speed limit was eventually raised to a breakneck 20mph in 1903, and then abolished altogether in 1931 (apart from buses and HGVs). In 1935 a speed limit of 30mph was introduced for built-up areas. During World War II, a night time speed limit of 20mph was added. The system of speed limits as we know them today, with 70mph on motorways and varying speed limits elsewhere, was introduced in stages from the 1960s onwards.