In a similar vein, U.S. automakers can make engines that blow past 70 mph because they make cars for global drivers and speed limits vary around the world. And drivers like the security of knowing they could outrun a natural disaster, such as a tornado, if necessary.
The speedometer designs also reflect research that found most people like the needle to hit highway speeds at the top of the speedometer’s circle, said Yazaki’s Baltaji. So the common freeway cruising speed of 70 to 80 mph is right in the middle on a 160 mph speedometer, he said.
The rising speedometer numbers aren’t surprising to Joan Claybrook, the top federal auto safety regulator under President Jimmy Carter. She’s been fighting the escalation for years and says it encourages drivers — especially younger ones — to drive too fast. During her tenure, she briefly got speedometer numbers lowered.
“They think that speed sells,” she said of automakers. “People buy these cars because they want to go fast.”
Some drivers at dealerships Tuesday conceded that marketing the higher speeds could have worked on them — at least when they were younger.
Paul Lampinen, 36, Ann Arbor, Mich., said he bought a Ram Pickup with a V-8 engine because he likes a powerful truck. The higher speedometer numbers could have influenced him when he was in his 20s, but they wouldn’t work now, he said. “I don’t want to pay any tickets,” he said while getting his truck serviced at a Chrysler dealer in nearby Saline, Mich.
For years, most speedometers topped out at 120 — even though that was 50 mph over the limit in most states. Then, in 1980, Claybrook, who ran the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, limited speedometers to 85 mph, even though cars could go much faster.
The move, designed to end the temptation to push cars to their limits, drew outrage from gearheads nationwide. Some automakers got around the rule by ending the numbers at 85 but leaving lines beyond that to show higher speeds. The government also forced automakers to highlight 55 mph, which at the time was the fuel-saving national speed limit.