J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Friday, February 19, 2016

Three Hundred Years of Speed Limits for Boston Drivers

If we can believe Wikipedia, Boston drivers have required strict measures for over two and a half centuries:
First Speed Law in America

The first speed limit in the United States was set in Boston in 1757 by the board of selectmen (similar to a city council). The speed limit for wagons, carriages, horses, etc. on Sunday was set at a walking pace. Anyone exceeding this limit would be fined 10 shillings (equal to £59.89 today).
Wikipedia isn’t the source for that statement, however. The factoid has appeared in many publications over the past century. But it’s off by more than fifty years.

We can find Bostonians instituting speed limits in their 1702 bylaws:
Ordered, That no person whatsoever Shall at any time hereafter ride or drive a gallop or other extream pace within any of the Streets, lanes, or alleys in this Town on penalty of forfeiting three Shillings for every such offence, and it may be lawfull for any of the Inhabitants of this Town to make Stop of such horse or Rider untill the name of the offender be known in order to prosecution
At that time Boston was the most populous port in British North America, thus the most likely to have a traffic problem that required governmental intervention.

Where did the date of 1757 come from? In that year the town revised its bylaws and came up with this:
Great Dangers arising oftentimes from Coaches Slays Chairs and other Carriages on the Lord’s days as the People are going to or coming from the several Churches in this Town, being driven with great Rapidity, and the Public Worship being oftentimes much disturbed by such Carriages driving by the sides of the Churches with great force in time thereof.

It is therefore Voted and Ordered that no Coach Slay Chair Chaise or other Carriage shall at such time be driven at a greater rate than a foot pace, on Penalty of the Sum of ten shillings, to be paid by the Person driving, or if he be a Servant or Slave by his master or Mistress.
While the 1702 law was in effect “at any time,” the 1757 law applied only to Sundays. It carried a heavier penalty (ten shillings instead of three). It’s also notable that the town felt the law needed to address the actions of enslaved drivers.

(This question was raised by Lee Wright, organizer of next month’s History Camp in Boston.)

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