A brief history of UK speed limits

Recently, Jeremy Clarkson claimed that the UK speed limit is a "Bronze Age law that has no place in a fast-moving wifi gigabyte world". Speed limits were actually introduced much much later than that.

In the period 1865-1896, locomotives on the highway had go at no more than 2 mph in a populated area and 4 mph elsewhere. Avid readers of this website may recall that Walter Arnold was successfully prosecuted for driving his Benz at 2 mph in 1895.

In 1896, the maximum speed limit was increased to 14 mph - the London to Brighton run took place in celebration of this. The speed limit was increased again by the Motor Car Act 1903 to 20 mph. The speed limit was widely ignored and in 1930 it was abolished. Speaking in 1932, Lord Buckmaster said, "the existing speed limit was so universally disobeyed that its maintenance brought the law into contempt".

The absence of speed limits ended when the Road Traffic Act 1936 introduced a 30 mph limit in "a built up area" - defined as a place having street lamps no more than 200 yards apart. There was no speed limit on motorways until 22nd December 1965 when a national speed limit of 70 mph was imposed - initially for a four month trial period. The trial period was extended and made permanent in 1967.

In December 1973, lower speed limits were introduced as a consequence of the government's response to the oil crisis - the motorway speed limit was reduced to 50 mph until May 1974 when the temporary restriction was lifted.

The present government announced plans to increase the motorway speed limit to 80 mph. Those plans were later put on hold.