Historic Speed Limits

Massachusetts established statewide speed limits in 1902. A person who drove a motor vehicle faster than 10 miles per hour in a city or settled area, or 15 miles per hour elsewhere, could be punished by a $200 fine and up to 10 days in jail.

In 1906 Massachusetts abolished the statutory absolute limit on speed. Exceeding the state speed limit -- now 12 or 20 miles per hour -- was no longer illegal per se. The speed limit was evidence for the jury to consider when deciding whether the defendant operated a motor vehicle faster than reasonable and proper. It remained strictly illegal to exceed a local speed limit posted by a city or town.

The $200 fine for speeding was significantly more than the typical monthly income. By 1909 the fine had been reduced to $25 and drivers could not be sent to jail for speeding.

To implement the national speed limit during World War 2, the Governor issued executive orders limiting vehicle speeds to 40 MPH, and later 35 MPH. Because the national speed limit was greater than the Massachusetts speed limit, these orders probably had little practical effect.

The most significant change in speed law since 1909 came in 1948, when the modern system of speed zoning was adopted. For the first time, speed limits were permitted to be increased over the state maximum (20 miles per hour in urban districts and 40 elsewhere). Posted speed limits were no longer absolute limits; instead they were evidence to be given the same weight as the state speed limits.

During the 1950s, many cities raised speed limits to 25 to 35 miles per hour in settled areas. Most such speed limits remain in effect today, even as actual vehicle speeds and the unposted speed limits have substantially increased.

The state DPW posted speed limits on most major roads around 1950. Speed limits were 55 miles per hour on new divided highways, and up to 45 on lesser roads. The DPW did a major review of speed limits on state highways in the mid to late 1960s, raising limits as high as 60 on two lane roads and 65 on freeways. 1970 marked the high point of speed limits. Many recently posted 50 and 55 mile per hour speed limits were reduced to 45 in the early 1970s. All higher speed limits were reduced to 55 in 1974 to comply with the National Maximum Speed Limit. The trend since 1974 years has been a gradual reduction, except that most 65 mile per hour speed limits were restored in the 1990s. With one exception the "temporarily" reduced 60 mile per hour speed limits were not restored. The Highway Department will not post any speed limit over 55 except by request of a sufficiently important politician.

As speed limits went down, speeding fines went up. By the 1980s the fine for speeding had increased to $50. In 1988 an additional fine was added for high speeds: $10 for each mile per hour more than ten over the limit. In 1999 the base fine was increased to $75. Governor Swift vetoed a section of the FY 2003 budget that would have increased the fine to $80 but the legislature successfully passed an increase to $100 in the FY 2004 budget.

Massachusetts Unposted Speed Limits
19021015$200 fine, 10 days in jail
19061220prima facie speed limits
19091520$25 fine
19482040Increases allowed
1963205045 at night
1964305045 at night
1965304050 on divided highways