Speed limit

A speed limit is the maximum speed allowed by law for vehicles on a road. (Also, an axiom of Einstein's relativity theories states that the speed limit of the Universe is the speed of light in a vacuum, i.e. 299,792,458 metres per second.)



Speed limits are usually, but not always, marked with a traffic sign. Near border crossings between countries using different units (for example, between Canada and the United States), they may be marked on the first few signs that are encountered after crossing.

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New style Irish speed limit sign in km/h

A similar situation now exists at the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Northern Ireland use miles per hour for speed limits, and since 20 January 2005, the Republic has used kilometres per hour. The Republic uses kilometres for distance (although some old signs with miles have not been removed, they are scheduled to be replaced before the end of 2005), and the United Kingdom uses miles. This changeover from miles to kilometres on roads was described by the then Irish Minister for Transport, Seamus Brennan, on October 6, 2003, as a "mini-euro" and a huge logistical operation. Britain, too, will likely switch to kilometres per hour in the foreseeable future (as they are required to under an EU directive), though this is unlikely before 2008. More information on the Irish metrication of road and speed limit signs can be found at the official website: http://www.gometric.ie/

Design speed

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Standard binnacle for automobile speedometers used in most countries

Speed limits are generally peripherally related to the design speed of the road. In the United States this is "a selected speed used to determine the various geometric design features of the roadway" according to the 2001 AASHTO Green Book, the highway design manual. It has been changed from previous versions which considered it the "maximum safe speed that can be maintained over a specific section of highway when conditions are so favorable that the design features of the highway govern." This distinction reflects the fact that the design speed has been discredited as a basis for establishing a speed limit; the design speed is largely based on characteristics of outdated automotive technology and is only a very conservative "first guess" at a limit.

One such common "design speed", popular in urban areas, is 30 miles per hour (roughly 50 km/h). Many hold this seemingly unremarkable speed to be a sensible upper boundary for near-ultimate safety. In practice, a reduction from 35 to 30 mph will often improve safety much more than the equal reduction from 30 to 25; as such, it is also common as a safe "practice speed" for new users of mopeds and motorized scooters.

85th percentile rule

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An automobile dashboard showing the speedometer (with primary markings in miles per hour and other gauges.

Since the 1950s, United States traffic engineers have been taught the 85th Percentile Rule, which claims the maximum speed limit on a previously unrestricted road should be set to the speed below which 85% of vehicles are traveling. The 85th percentile closely corresponds to one standard deviation above the mean of a normal distribution. This rule has been used for many years, yet no scientific evidence has been produced that this particular rule is safer than any other.

Speed limits in specific countries


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Australian speed limit sign

Speed limits in Australia range from 40 km/h (25 mph) to 110 km/h (70 mph) at 10 km/h intervals. Generally:

  • School zones are 40 km/h (25 mph) during school hours, except in South Australia, where they are 25 km/h (15 mph). This speed limit is also enforced in some shopping precincts.
  • Suburban roads are 50 km/h (30 mph) in most states
  • Major suburban routes are 60 km/h (40 mph)
  • Major connector roads and smaller highways are 80 km/h (50 mph)
  • Highways and freeways are 100 km/h (65 mph)
  • National highway routes are 100 or 110 km/h (65-70 mph)

Some states do not have 50 km/h zones, and those that do have only introduced them in recent years.

It is not uncommon to see 70 km/h and 90 km/h limits on some roads, where a higher limit is deemed too dangerous, yet a lower limit is unreasonable for the traffic.

The Northern Territory is an exception, as there is no speed limit on the highways.

Speed traps are used in almost all areas of the country. Tolerance is from 8%-10% in most states but only 3 km/h in Victoria, an issue which has caused a lot of controversy.


Missing image
Canadian speed limit posting

Typical speed limits are:

  • 30-50 km/h (20-30 mph) within school and playground zones
  • 40-50 km/h (25-30 mph) on residential streets within cities and towns
  • 60-70 km/h (35-45 mph) on major arterial roads in urban and suburban areas
  • 80-100 km/h (50-65 mph) on highways outside of cities and towns and urban expressways
  • 100-110 km/h (65-70 mph) on freeways and rural expressways.

Note that where more than one limit is given per road, it usually indicates a difference between provinces. However, within Provinces, different roads of the same classification may have different speed limits. For example, in Alberta, some freeways have a limit of 100 km/h, while others have a speed limit of 110 km/h, but in Ontario, all freeways have a speed limit of 100 km/h unless posted as lower. Speed Limits are generally lower in Ontario and Quebec on comparable roads than in other Canadian Provinces. An example being rural two-lane highways in Ontario having a standard speed limit of 80km/h, while comparable roads in other provinces having standard speed limits of 90-100km/h. In general Canadian speed limits are much lower than on comparable roads in Europe or the US. Also, note that these speed limits are reduced by varying amounts within construction zones.


Previously, all expressways in the People's Republic of China were limited to a maximum speed limit of 110 km/h (70 mph). With the passage of the PRC's first road-related law, the Road Traffic Safety Law of the People's Republic of China, speed limits were raised nationwide to 120 km/h (75 mph) as of May 1, 2004; however, the updating of signs (if and when it becomes complete) will still take some time.

Semi-expressways and city express routes (uniquely called kuaisu gonglu 快速公路 in Chinese, meaning "fast public road") generally have lower speed limits topping out at around 100 km/h (65 mph), and in some cases, the speed limit may be lower.

On China National Highways (which are not expressways), a common speed limit is 80 km/h (50 mph). In localities, speed limits may drop to 40 km/h (25 mph). In reality, few people drive according to the speed limits, and on some roads, enforcement cameras are nearly non-existent.

On some designated "fast through routes" in cities, speed limits can go all the way up to 80 km/h (50 mph). Otherwise, speed limit remains 70 km/h (45 mph) on roads with two uninterrupted yellow lines and 60 km/h (40 mph) or even 50 km/h (30 mph) otherwise. Signage in towns and expressways are often present.

Minimum speed limits on expressways are varied. A general minimum speed limit of 60 km/h (40 mph) is in force at all times (although traffic jams more than thwart it). According to law, the overtaking lane has a minimum speed limit of 110 km/h (70 mph), and a second lane often has a minimum speed limit of 90-100 km/h (55-65 mph). (The second lane, though, should only be set a minimum speed limit if third, fourth, and subsequent lanes exist.)



See following table for the speed limits in European states:

Unit: km/h (in parenthesis mph)

State Automobile and Motorcycle Automobile with Trailer
outside towns/motorroutes* Expressway/Motorway outside towns/motorroutes* Expressway/Motorway
Austria 100 (65) 130 (80) 100 (65)4 100 (65)5
Belgium 90 (55) 120 (75) 90 (55) 120 (75)
Croatia 80 (50)/100 (65) 130 (80) 80 (50) 80 (50)
Cyprus 80 (50) 100 (65) 80 (50) 100 (65)
Czech Republic 90 (55)/130 (80) 130 (80) 80 (50) 80 (50)
Denmark 80 (50) 130 (80) 80 (50) 80 (50)
Finland 80 (50)/100 (65) 120 (75)6 60 (40)/80 (50) 80 (50)
France 90 (55)/110 (70) 130 (80) 90 (55)/110 (70) 130 (80)
Germany 100 (65)/none1 none1 80 (50) 80 (50)/100 (65)7
Greece (Cars) 90 (55) 120 (75) 80 (50) 80 (50)
70 (45) 90 (55)
Hungary 90 (55)/110 (70) 130 (80) 70 (45) 80 (50)
Ireland8 80 (50)/100 (65) 120 (75) 80 (50)/100 (65) 80 (50)
Italy 90 (55)/130 (80)2 130 (80)/150 (95)3 70 (45) 80 (50)
Liechtenstein 80 (50) 80 (50)
Malta 64 (40) 64 (40)
Netherlands 80 (50)/100 (65) 120 (75) 80 (50) 80 (50)
Norway 80 (50) 90 (55)/100 (65)9 80 (50) 80 (50)
Poland 90 (55) 130 (80) 70 (45) 80 (50)
Portugal 90 (55) /100 (65) 120 (75) 70 (45)/80 (50) 100 (65)
Slovakia 90 (55) 130 (80) 80 (50) 80 (50)
Slovenia 90 (55)/100 (65) 130 (80) 80 (50) 80 (50)
Spain 90 (55)/100 (65) 120 (75) 70 (45)/80 (50) 80 (50)
Sweden 70 (45)/90 (55) 110 (70) 80 (50) 80 (50)
Switzerland 80 (50)/100 (65) 120 (75) 80 (50) 80 (50)
Turkey 90 (55)/130 (80) 130 (80) 70 (45) 70 (45)
United Kingdom10 95 (60) /110 (70) 110 (70) 80 (50)/95 (60) 95 (60)

*Motorroutes: Two or more line roads with median (dual carriageway) with a minimum speed of 60 km/h (40 mph).

Missing image
Speed Equivalent chart issued to Irish motorists

1 130 (80) is the recommended maximum speed (though many motorways in Germany are signposted for 100, or 120 km/h and virtually all motorroutes are signposted for 60 to 120 km/h as the maximum).
2 For motorcycles 110 (70).
3 Two lane-expressways: 130 (80); three lane-expressway: 150 (95) (since 2003, the speed limit of 150 km/h (95 mph) is only valid when signed).
4 Automobile with weighty trailer: 80 (50), Truck with weighty trailer: 70 (45).
5 Automobile with weighty trailer: 100 (65), Truck with weighty trailer: 80 (50).
6 During the winter months, when conditions are often bad, all Finnish motorways have a speed limit of 100 km/h (65 mph) or less.
7 Need to be licensed from the German Technical Inspection Authority (TÜV).
8 Effective January 20, 2005
9 A provisional 100 km/h limit on some motorways was made permanent when it turned out the number of accidents decreased.
10Signs are posted in miles per hour, a situation unlikely to change in the near future.

In most European states there is a generally speed limit of 50 km/h (30 mph) inside towns.


When British motorways were first built, there was no speed limit imposed on them. However, after a series of horrendous accidents, a supposedly temporary speed limit of 70 miles per hour (110 km/h) was enforced. The Association of Chief Police Officers in Scotland and the Association of British Drivers have called for the limit to be increased. The Conservative Party are now proposing to raise the limit to 80 miles per hour (130 km/h), but it remains unclear whether this proposal will eventually become law.

On French autoroutes, there is a variable speed limit. In dry weather an autoroute has a speed limit of 130 km/h (80 mph), where when raining the speed limit is reduced to 110 km/h (70 mph).

The German Autobahns are famous for not having speed limits for cars except where indicated by traffic signs. Blanket speed limits do apply for trucks, buses and cars pulling trailers. Speeds over 200 km/h (125 mph) are not uncommon, but there is a recommended speed (in German: "Richtgeschwindigkeit) of 130 km/h (80 mph). In case of an accident insurance payments can be dropped by exceeding the recommended speed. Some areas have compulsory speed limits to reduce the noise produced by cars when driving through residential areas.

The Italian Autostradas have a 130 km/h (80 mph) speed limit, with 110 km/h (70 mph) limits on curvy roads and in rainy conditions and 150 km/h (95 mph) limits on newer and straighter roads.

Swiss Autobahns are limited to 120 km/h (75 mph) as a maximum speed limit. Semi-motorways, known as motorroads or Autostrasse, have a generally lower speed limit of 100 km/h (65 mph).

New Zealand

Speed limits in New Zealand range from 20 km/h to 100 km/h. Specifically:

  • 20 km/h (10 mph) past school buses and accident sites
  • 30 km/h (20 mph) past roadworks
  • 50 km/h (30 mph) in most urban areas
  • 60 km/h (40 mph) for many city arterial routes
  • 70 km/h or 80 km/h (45-50 mph) on highways through built-up areas, or on dangerous or older roads.
  • 100 km/h (65 mph) on expressways and highways

Some vehicles are restricted to lower speeds:

  • 90 km/h (55 mph) for trucks and vehicles with trailers
  • 80 km/h (50 mph) for school buses
  • 70 km/h (45 mph) for motorcyclists with learner licences

United States

Missing image
Typical speed limit sign on a U.S highway. Here speed limit is 75 mph for ordinary vehicles while it is 65 mph for large vehicles like trucks.

On interstate highways in the United States speed limits range from urban limits as low as 40 mph (65 km/h) to rural limits as high as 75 mph (120 km/h). Before the 1973 energy crisis, some states posted no speed limit on the interstate highways. At one time Kansas had an 80 MPH (130 km/h) speed limit on its turnpike system. In 1974, Congress imposed a nationwide 55 MPH (90 km/h) speed limit by threatening to withhold highway funds from states that did not adopt this limit. It was estimated a speed of 55 mph used 17% less fuel per mile than a speed of 75 MPH (120 km/h). It was also believed, based on a noticeable drop the first year the limit was imposed, that it cut down on highway deaths, but later studies were more mixed on this point. This limit was unpopular, especially in Western states. In 1987 states were permitted to raise speed limits to 65 MPH (105 km/h) on rural interstate highways.

All federal speed limit controls were lifted on November 28, 1995, leaving the task of setting maximum speeds to the states. Immediately, all states except Montana imposed numerical speed limits on their interstate highway segments, many higher than 65 mph (105 km/h). However, no Interstate highway, freeway, or expressway is currently signed for over 75 mph (120 km/h), and within major city limits, few freeways have speed limits over 65 mph (105 km/h).

For four years, Montana had a "reasonable and prudent" speed limit during the daytime, a limit it already had on state highways. As a result, drivers of high-performance automobiles began to regularly visit Montana for the specific purpose of driving at high speeds on its freeways (as if they were German autobahns). In June 1999, Montana joined the rest of the nation and imposed a maximum speed limit of 75 mph (120 km/h) on its Interstate highways.

In California, many speed limit signs are identified as "Maximum Speed", usually when the limit is 55 MPH or more.

In addition to the legally defined maximum speed, minimum speeds are posted occasionally. However, minimum speed laws are rarely enforced.

On most other roads and highways, the general speed limits are as follows:

  • 5-15 mph (10-25 km/h) in parking lots (usually set by lot owners and non-binding)
  • 15-25 mph (25-40 km/h) in school zones (passing in school zones is prohibited in some cities)
  • 25-30 mph (40-50 km/h) on residential streets in cities and towns
  • 35-45 mph (55-70 km/h) on major arterial roads in urban and suburban areas
  • 45-70 mph (70-110 km/h) on highways outside cities and towns and urban expressways
  • 55-70 mph (90-110 km/h) on non-Interstate freeways and rural expressways.
  • 65-75 mph (105-120 km/h) on rural Interstate freeways

For a current listing of all US State Highway Speed Limits click on Speed Limits by State, Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (http://www.iihs.org/safety_facts/state_laws/speed_limit_laws.htm#)


Missing image
German police officer enforcing speed limit

It is argued that lower speeds save lives since accident forces are proportional to the square of the speed. However, the raising of U.S. speed limits in the 1980s and 1990s produced mixed empirical evidence. Sometimes there were more fatalities on the roads immediately affected, but other times no effect was noticed. Overall systemwide roadway death rates went down. It is theorized that higher speed limits encourage more travel on safer, Interstate-class roads instead of more dangerous, non-limited access highways. Thus fatalities on non-Interstates were reduced. Others argue that it is speed variance that kills; higher speed limits encourage slow drivers, who strictly obey speed limits, to catch up with the flow of traffic. (Vehicles traveling the same speed in the same lane will not hit each other.)

However, it is commonly believed that unrealistic or unreasonably low speed limits lead to disrespect for the law, contempt of law enforcement, and larger speed differences between faster and slower drivers. They will make violators out of citizens who would be otherwise law-abiding. In several countries, notably the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, a massive increase in automated speed enforcement has caused a significant increase in the number of fake licence plates, uninsured vehicles, and people driving whilst disqualified.

It has also been argued that the human instinct for survival means that allowing drivers to drive at fast speeds encourages better concentration, in much the same way as someone walking one foot from the edge of a cliff will take far more care than someone walking 10 feet from the edge. Contrary to first impressions, the person walking one foot from the edge is less likely to walk over the edge as they are more aware of the danger.

Roads without speed limits

There remain a few public roads where blanket speed limits do not apply, often due to low traffic levels. The most famous of these are German intercity Autobahnen. Australia's Northern Territory also has no blanket speed limits outside major towns.

See also

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