Speeding Laws: How Fast You’re Allowed to Drive and Ticket Penalties

Different types of speeding violations and the consequences of being caught driving over the speed limit.

Speeding tickets are, by far, the most common type of citation that police issue. But speeding laws and penalties involve lots of nuances that aren't so commonly known. This article gives an overview of speeding laws and the penalties a driver might face for getting a speeding ticket.

Three Types of Speed Limits

Every state regulates driving speeds in some fashion. Generally, speeding laws fall into one of three categories: basic, maximum, and per se speed limits (the terminology sometimes differs by state). And most states use two or more of these types of speed laws.

"Basic" or "Fundamental" Speed Limits

It's usually illegal to operate a motor vehicle at a speed greater than is reasonable for the current conditions. This speed restriction—called a "basic" or "fundamental" speed law—is often used when no speed limit is posted or when weather conditions warrant extra precautions. So a driver can get a basic speed law ticket for driving at an unsafe speed even if he or she is going slower than the posted speed limit.

For example, while driving 55 miles per hour on the highway may be reasonable when conditions are perfect, the basic speed law would likely require motorists to drive slower than the normal maximum limit if it's dark and icy.

"Maximum" or "Absolute" Speed Limits

Most states have at least some "maximum" or "absolute" speed limits. Maximum speed limits simply prohibit driving faster than a certain speed on a specific portion of a roadway. Typically, states and cities try to post speed limits signs on all roads where drivers can see them. However, there are occasionally areas where maximum speed limits apply but aren't posted. To cover these areas, states and cities often have blanket speeding limits that apply when no signs are posted. For example, a town might have a 30 mile per hour limit that applies in areas where no other speed limit is posted.

Driving in excess of a maximum speed limit is a violation of the law regardless of the conditions or intent of the driver.

"Per se," "Presumed," or "Prima Facie" Speed Limits

Some states also use "per se" (also called "presumed" and "prima facie") speed limits. With a per se limit, there is typically a posted maximum speed. However, if the driver is caught going faster than that speed, he or she can beat the ticket by proving the speed was nevertheless safe given the current conditions. In other words, exceeding a per se limit creates a presumption of a violation, but the driver still has an opportunity to convince a judge that the speed was safe. If the judge is convinced, he or she will dismiss the ticket.

Laws Prohibiting Driving Too Slowly

State laws also prohibit driving too slowly. A motorist who's driving at such a slow speed as to impede the reasonable flow of traffic and cause unsafe conditions can receive a traffic citation. Certain roads, like interstates, might have a posted minimum speed (often 40 miles per hour) to ensure traffic flows smoothly.

Speeding Violation Penalties

Infraction speeding. Generally, a speeding violation is an infraction and carries fines that might range from about $25 to $400. In many states, a speeding ticket will also result in the DMV assessing points to the driver's record.

Generally, the specific amount of the fine depends on the driver's speed in relation to the speed limit. For example, some states impose a base fine plus a certain amount for each mile per hour over the limit. Other states specify the fine amounts for different ranges by which the driver exceeds the speed limit.

Many states also imposed higher fines for violations that occur in work or school zones.

Misdemeanor speeding. In some states, speeding violations are elevated to misdemeanors if the driver has prior offenses or if certain aggravating factors are involved. For example, in Illinois, driving 26 miles per hour or more over the limit is a misdemeanor and can result in a maximum of six months in jail and up to $1,500 in fines. And driving over 100 miles per hour in New Hampshire is a misdemeanor and carries a $500 fine and 60-day license suspension.

Felony speeding. A speeding violation, on its own, can't be charged as a felony. However, certain circumstances involving speeding violations can result in felony charges. For example, a driver who speeds in a street race or while fleeing from the police might face felony charges. Causing an injury or a death while speeding could also result in the driver being charged with a felony.

Speeding Ticket Defenses

Exceeding the speed limit is generally not a mens rea crime—meaning it doesn't matter why or whether you were aware you were speeding. However, defenses do exist for speeding tickets. For example, a skilled attorney may be able to attack the reliability of the equipment the officer used to clock your speed or find some other way to get the ticket thrown out. If you're interested in fighting a speeding ticket, it's a good idea to talk to an experienced traffic attorney who can help you decide on the best course of action.