Most drivers recognise the national speed limit sign, although older motorists may call the sign used to mark this as ‘end of speed restriction.’ When it was originally launched that was actually the meaning of the sign; outside of a built up area there were no speed limits. Drivers on country roads could drive at whatever speed they liked!
Speed limits in the very early days of motoring were very restrictive; they weren’t much more than walking pace. It was so strict that within towns a driver had to employ a man to walk in front of the car waving a red flag.
In 1903 ‘The Motor Car Act’ raise the limit to 20mph, but then this limit was later abolished in 1931. The lack of any speed restriction continued until 1934-35. Concern over the number of casualties in traffic incidents brought about a change in policy. A committee led by Leslie Hore-Belisha (the man responsible for the Belisha beacon) made the decision; and the 30 mph limit for driving in a built-up area came into force. This is still the limit in force today.
At the time manufacturers did not make all vehicles with speedometers, so obeying the restrictions was often down to guesswork. In 1937 it became compulsory for all newly built cars to have one fitted.
In 1959 Britain’s first motorway opened to the public. At 193 miles long and with no speed limit the M1 was something of a racetrack. After a spate of high speed accidents the Minister for Transport took the decision to temporarily set a speed limit of 70 mph. This experiment continued for quite some time despite a lot of opposition from some quarters; including the AA and the RAC. However in 1967 the national speed limit became permanent.
70 mph was now the maximum speed limit outside of a built-up area. A built-up area meant any area with buildings which had street lighting. For single carriageway roads however this limit was reduced to 60 mph in 1977.