Archive for Thursday, July 30, 2009

Speeding history

July 30, 2009

There was no observance of this centennial. Yet, what the Bonner Springs City Council did a century ago still is part of our everyday lives. And, yes, while the conditions have changed dramatically, it will always be controversial.

What am I talking about? In July 1909, the Bonner Springs City Council passed the first ordinance setting speed limits in the city. By standards of the time, it was a relatively liberal law. The speed limit in residential areas was set at 10 mph and in nonresidential areas the speed limit was set at a fast 15 mph.

The city council was following a trend in the United States of setting maximum speeds. The automobile was gaining popularity and more were showing up.

In that time, automobiles had their detractors. Ed Matthews, Chieftain publisher in the early years of the 20th century, railed against automobiles a number of times in his weekly column. He could not understand why anyone would forfeit the reliability of a horse to a noisy, smelly automobile. He, along with other writers, expressed concern that the automobile would hurt the economy and would put horse-based industries out of business.

There was no explanation about why the city council took the action. It was simply reported that the ordinance passed and was signed by Mayor A. B. C. Dague. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a report of the first person who received a ticket for speeding in Bonner Springs.

Actually the idea of a speed limit dates to the city of New Amsterdam, the predecessor of New York City, in 1652. Within certain areas, horses had to be led. A violation of the law resulted in a fine of two pounds.

More than a century later, cities had enacted laws preventing wild and fast driving of buggies and riding of horses. Probably the most famous speeder to be caught was President Ulysses S. Grant, who was ticketed in Washington, D.C., during his term as president.

In big cities, speed limits gained popularity in the late 1890s. One historical account I read reported that the first person to receive a speeding ticket in New York City was taxi driver Jacob German. He was ticketed for racing along at 12 mph on May 20, 1899.

The first state to set a speed limit was Connecticut in 1901. Kansas, as was the case with many Midwestern and western states, was slow to embrace the idea of a speed limit. Back in the 1950s when I first learned to drive, there was no speed limit on Kansas highways, only what was safe and prudent. Make no mistake, there were teenagers racing along flat stretches of road at 100 mph. The Legislature in the late 1950s set the speed limits, which remained in place for next 15 to 20 years.

In the first oil crisis in 1972, the speed limit on federal highways was set at 55 mph, which was extremely unpopular. Slowly, the federal limits were peeled away and 32 states had speed limits of 70 mph or more on at least some highways. I remember driving to Salina to the state tournament at the hated “double nickel” and feeling frustrated. Two years later, I was heading back to the tournament and thinking about how much more fun it was as I cruised along at 70.

Certainly speed limits are always controversial. Back in the early 1990s, when there was a push to increase speed limits in Kansas, one lady took me to task for an editorial advocating greater speeds on highways. It always seemed to me that folks who had to travel a great deal want the higher speed limits. Those who rarely took auto trips were happy with the slower speed limits.

There was no observance of the 100th anniversary of the speed limit ordinance in Bonner Springs. I am sure there were many who would curse the ordinance as they headed to Municipal Court to pay a fine for speeding.


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