Why Your Car’s Speedometer Goes Up To 160 Mph (Even When Your Car Can’t) | Cars

Apple recently unveiled a new version of its CarPlay system for vehicles, which includes gauges like speedometers. But even Apple, the company that broke tradition by reinventing phones, music players and headphones, bends to convention when it comes to speedometers. It displayed a classic style speedometer that reached 160 mph, an automotive industry standard.

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That’s nearly twice the highest speed limit in the United States, 85 mph, on a stretch of freeway in Texas. Why do our speedometers stretch to an illegal speed, which only race car drivers will reach?

Toyota spokesman Paul Hogard said the automaker wanted speedometers to be easy to read, so it helps to place the typical operating speed for American cars, 45 mph to 70 mph, a he said, at the top of the speedometer, which is the easiest place on the speedometer for the driver to read. To do that — while still maintaining a visually appealing symmetrical speedometer — requires a gauge that displays operating speeds well beyond that, he said.

So the vehicles, like some Toyota Corollas, have a speedometer of 160 mph although they are nowhere near such speeds.

Speedometers that go far beyond legal driving speeds have long been the norm in the United States, according to speedometer and auto safety experts. The trend has continued into the 21st century even as road deaths increase.

As early as the 1920s, cars could be purchased with speedometers up to 120 mph, according to Bruce Woolsey, president of Michigan-based auto parts supplier Bob’s Speedometer.

Speedometers increased even more in the 1950s after Ford and Chrysler introduced the Thunderbird and 300, respectively, Woolsey said. Their speedometers reached 150 mph, he said, and were a stepping stone to the popularization of 160 mph speedometers. The first 160 mph speedometer he knows of was in the 1950s Cunningham C-3.

These high speedometers have a controversial history, however.

Some car safety experts say wide-ranging speedometers can normalize high-speed driving and subtly help people traveling at dangerous speeds well over 100 mph.

Joan Claybrook, who served as administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration from 1977 to 1981, told CNN Business she was “absolutely furious” with high-speed speedometers during her tenure.

So the NHTSA issued a rule in 1979 that speedometers should not read speeds above 85 mph.

“The auto industry has gone crazy,” Claybrook recalls. “I wouldn’t move. I put my body on the line on this one.”

Claybrook said high-speed speedometers are dangerous and can cause young people to test the limits of their cars.

“For 16 to 25 year olds, they always want to test,” Claybrook said. “It’s very tempting for kids to take on challenges and go faster.”

The speedometers were redone to meet the 1979 rule. But that was short-lived.

The limitation was abolished once the Reagan administration took power and Claybrook exited.

Joe Young, spokesperson for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, told CNN Business that he is not aware of any research that has investigated the relationship between speedometer design and travel speeds. But he said it cannot be ruled out that there is a link.

“It’s not a big leap to assume drivers can feel more comfortable pushing their speeds when there’s still a lot of speedometer to go,” Young said. The relationship between impact velocity and impact energy is not linear, so pushing the velocity a bit can have big consequences, he said, pointing to the research findings.

Some consumers may view a high-range speedometer as a selling point, as it suggests the driver has a particularly powerful vehicle.

Many speedometers have switched to a digital display, which exclusively shows the current speed of the vehicle. Apple includes such a potential layout in its CarPlay demo. Apple declined to comment for this story.

After Claybrook, auto safety leaders turned to other tactics to combat speeding.

NHTSA this week launched a campaign, Speeding Wrecks Lives, which aims to change general attitudes towards speeding.

It includes $8 million in media ads and targets drivers ages 18 to 44, who are most likely to be involved in speeding-related fatalities, according to NHTSA.

“This guy was a little over the speed limit,” a narrator says, pointing to a driver, before cutting to a shot of a child in a hospital bed. “Look at the damage.”

There were 11,258 fatalities in speeding crashes in 2020, according to NHTSA data.

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