Iowa’s rural interstate speed limit rises to 70 today (Friday) but it’s not the first time we’ve legally been able to go that fast. When Mel Allen of Newton first became an Iowa Highway Patrolman in 1953, the sky was the speed limit as the signs only read “reasonable and proper.” Allen, who retired in the late ’70s, says speeding tickets didn’t exist then. “If someone was really exceeding the speed limit, we used to stop ’em and warn ’em and tell ’em ‘you’re going too fast to be able to stop under the conditions’ and just talk to ’em but you couldn’t file a charge on ’em.”
Allen says back then, if someone wrecked, they could be charged with failure to maintain control — if they lived. With no air bags, no seat belts and very high speeds, he says there were rarely survivors. He says cars weren’t built for safety then and even one-car crashes would prove fatal, especially if they’d been pushing 100 miles an hour. The speed limit signs on Iowa’s highways during that era literally said “Reasonable and Proper” and Allen says, there was little to be done about excessive speeders by the patrolmen — the term trooper wasn’t used then.
He says “All we had was the ‘under control’ thing. If they’re driving down the road 85 miles an hour in the rain and aren’t having a wreck or anything, they apparently have their car under control.” Those days ended in 1959, when the first speed limit signs were posted in Iowa. They called for a limit of 70 miles an hour during the day and 65 at night. Allen says his first Iowa State Patrol car topped out at 85 miles an hour. He says he’d often get outrun in that 1952 Ford.