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California Wants to Require Automakers to Install Speed Limiters

by | March 4, 2024

California lawmakers are considering a bill that could require new vehicles to come with an “intelligent speed limiter” that, in most instances, would prevent motorists from driving more than 10 mph above the speed limit. Such devices have also been recommended by the National Transportation Safety Board, though that has gained little traction on a federal level.

rollover crash

Federal safety experts claim speeding contributes to a third of all U.S. traffic fatalities.

California state Sen. Scott Wiener wants to rein in speeders. Citing “The alarming surge in road deaths,” the San Francisco-based lawmaker says “an urgent response” is needed. And one of the key elements of a bill he’s put before the Golden State’s legislature would require all new vehicles be equipped with an “intelligent speed limiter,” starting with the 2027 model-year.

Preliminary federal data indicated 44,450 Americans died in highway crashes last year. If the numbers hold, that would mark a 4% year-over-year decline and the first decrease since 2019, according to the National Safety Council. Fatal crashes fell sharply through the first decade of the new millennium but then began an unexpected rise. In 2021, 42,939 motorists, passengers, bicyclists and pedestrians were killed, the highest number in 16 years.

“Speeding accounts for nearly one-third of all fatalities on our roads and puts everyone at risk, including people in other vehicles, pedestrians, cyclists, motorcyclists and people with disabilities,” Ann Carlson, the Acting Administrator at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, said in a statement last year.

2024 BMW X5 xDrive 50e - front 3-4 driving v2

Many European vehicles already come with speed limiters — though they’re routinely set at or around 150 mph,

“No reason” to go over 100 mph

“There is no reason for anyone to be going over 100 miles per hour on a public road,” said Sen. Wiener as he introduced Senate Bill 961.

Authorities across the U.S. have reported that speeding has become more common since COVID struck. Many American motorists used the drop in traffic due to pandemic-related lockdowns as an excuse to drive faster. In 2020, the California Highway Patrol issued more than 3,000 tickets to motorists caught driving over 100 mph.

Noting that California’s highway fatalities rose 22% between 2019 and 2022 – compared to 19% nationwide — Wiener said that, “Instead of leading the rise in traffic fatalities, California should be leading the nation in reducing needless deaths on our roadways.”

More Auto Safety News

SB 961

CA Sen Scott WeinerThe new mandate proposed as part of SB 961 would electronically limit the speed any vehicle could operate at to no more than 10 miles per hour above the posted speed limit. There would be exceptions for emergency vehicles. And the CHP could disable the limiters, if needed for, say, undercover vehicles.

Many vehicles already come with speed limiters. They’ve become common on high-powered European models from brands like Mercedes-Benz and BMW, often restricting vehicles to no more than 150 miles an hour.

Wiener’s proposal would drop that to 100. More significantly, it would require the use of GPS, cameras and onboard mapping to determine what the speed limit is on any given stretch of road. Manufacturers have shown that already is possible, some using sensors to adjust speed when a vehicle’s active cruise control is enabled.

The opposition

The European Union has already enacted similar rules set to go into place with all new vehicles sold in the EU after June of this year.

Whether Wiender’s measure will make it through the California legislature – and then get signed into law by Gov. Gavin Newsom – is far from clear, however. Among those opposing the measure are truckers who frequently face lower speed limits than passenger vehicles on many U.S. highways.

“There are times drivers may want to speed up enough to switch lanes, to move away from certain unsafe situations. Our preference is for drivers to have the maximum ability to do that. We don’t think technology or even most well-intentioned regulations should obstruct that,” Todd Spencer, president of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, told the Los Angeles Times.

The Double-Nickel

Jimmy Carter and 55 sign

The “double-nickel” speed limit was first enacted by Pres. Richard Nixon and then made permanent by Pres. Jimmy Carter.

Back in 1973, the Nixon administration passed a measure aimed at reducing the use of imported oil in the wake of the first Mideast oil boycott. Speed limits across the country initially were reduced to 50 mph, then raised to 55. Proponents claimed the pay-off was an immediate impact on highway safety, road deaths tumbling 23% during the first half of 1974.

But opposition to the “double-nickel” rules was fierce, legendary automotive journalist Brock Yates decrying supporters as “Safety Nazis.” Speeding became the single most frequently violated law in the U.S., according to many experts.

In 1995, the 55-mph limit was repealed, even as then-Ohio Sen. Mike DeWine warned that, “If we raise the speed limit, people will die.”

A big surprise

That didn’t happen, however. Much to everyone’s surprise, fatalities that peaked at 44,599 in 1990 began to flatten out and then drop sharply. By 2011, the number was down to 32,479. But then, highway fatalities began rising again, peaking out in 2021 at 42,939.

All sorts of explanations have been proposed. Distracted driving has been one big factor in recent years, NHTSA blaming such things as texting while driving for at least 10% of all deaths. And there are indications that drunken – and drugged – driving has become more of a problem after years of severe crackdowns.

But, with evidence that motorists are driving faster than ever on American roadways, there’s growing pressure on both lawmakers and law enforcement to crack down.


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