Speed Limits in the US

Regulations and penalties

Speed limits vary from state to state and are usually signposted. The federal recommended maximum speed limit on freeways is 55mph, often referred to as the ‘double nickel’. This has been increased to 65mph on rural interstate highways in some 40 states. Check local speed limits and look out for speed restrictions.

The following speed limits are guidelines only and apply to cars and motorcycles:

On freeways there’s often a minimum speed limit of 40mph or 45mph, unless otherwise indicated, although this is rarely enforced. Some areas are designated as ‘speed zones’, where speed limits are restricted and there are often 30mph to 35mph zones immediately after leaving a freeway, which are strictly enforced. Speeding in a school zone is a serious offence. Many small towns control their own roads and often have speed limits as low as 25mph.

Some speed limits are advisory, e.g. at sharp bends on open roads, and are shown on a yellow background rather than white. (In the New England states, speed limits at bends are compulsory.) Speed restrictions are often signposted at level (grade) crossings, alleys and uncontrolled junctions, where visibility is limited.

The 55mph or 65mph speed limits are widely ignored, although most motorists drive 5mph or 10mph above the limit only (except in Los Angeles, where there’s a two-speed system: dangerously fast and stopped). Most truckers and many motorists have Citizens Band (CB) radios, distinguishable by their huge antennas. Among other things, these are used to broadcast the location of police patrol cars (Smokey the Bear) and speed traps.

Speeding (called a ‘moving violation’) is usually less risky when you’re in a group, as it’s unlikely that the police will book a whole convoy of vehicles. Following a speeding trucker (72mph is considered to be the ‘trucker’s speed’ in 65mph zones) may help you avoid a ticket, but don’t count on it. Speeding is the main factor in over 25 per cent of accidents, particularly in mountain areas, where it’s more likely to result in the loss of your life than the loss of your licence.

The enforcement of speed limits depends on the particular state, although speeding is generally taken much more seriously in the US than in many other countries. In most states, non-freeway speed limits are more rigorously enforced than freeway limits and are, therefore, more widely observed. Speed limits are enforced by state, county and city police using radar guns, fixed radar traps, marked and unmarked cars, helicopters, and light aircraft (e.g. on interstate highways). Radar warning signs are usually erected at state borders and along highways, although there are no warnings in some states.

All states except Connecticut, Michigan, Virginia and the District of Columbia permit the use of radar detector devices (in wide use), but radar jamming devices are illegal in all states. Drivers often warn oncoming drivers of radar traps by flashing their headlights, but this is often illegal and can result in a fine. An increasing number of authorities now use photographic speed traps that snap a speeder’s registration number (used successfully for many years in Europe).

This article is an extract from Living and Working in America. Click here to get a copy now.

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