Why Do Car Speedometers List Speeds That Are Way Over the Legal Limit?


Judging by their speedometers, you would think that most modern automobiles can easily hit 160 miles per hour. Yet, unless you’re a NASCAR vet, you probably have never come close to actually going that fast. Let’s talk tickets: In the U.S. there isn’t a single stretch of highway where one can legally exceed 85 mph. So why do car companies build models that can double this velocity in the first place?

Well, the short answer is “they don’t,” as this clip points out:

According to former Nissan executive Larry Dominique, “Eighty percent of cars on the road are not designed for and will not go over 110 miles per hour,” regardless of what your speedometer claims. Moreover, tires usually can’t long endure being pushed over 130 miles per hour.

So why does the speedometer of your dawdling family sedan or minivan boast of high speeds that it simply can’t match?

There’s a small matter of salesmanship. To unsuspecting folks shopping for a new ride, higher maximum velocities may imply stronger engines. Thus, from a marketing perspective, exaggerated speedometers make total sense. But does this deceiving practice come at a price? Fearing that inflated numbers encouraged reckless driving, National Highway Safety Administration leader Joan Claybrook spearheaded a new rule which prohibited speedometers from reading above 85 miles per hour in 1979 (this was repealed two years later).

Take a peek at certain older speedometers, and you might notice that the number 55 is circled. That’s because, during a 1974 standoff with OPEC, President Richard Nixon issued a nationwide speed limit of 55 mph which he hoped would promote fuel efficiency. Though this measure, dubbed the Emergency Energy Conservation Act, would be tweaked and modified in subsequent years, it wasn’t fully repealed until 1995.