Why does your car’s speedometer go above 200 km/h?

(CNN) – Apple recently unveiled a new version of its CarPlay system for vehicles, which includes gauges such as speedometers. But even Apple, the company that brushed tradition aside when it reinvented phones, music players and headphones, is bending to tradition when it comes to speedometers. It featured an old-fashioned accelerometer that exceeded 200 km/h (160 mph to be exact), the auto industry standard.

That’s nearly twice the highest speed limit in the United States, 85 mph (136 km/h), along a stretch of highway in Texas. Why do our speedometers extend to a speed that is illegal and will only be achieved by racing drivers?

Toyota spokesman Paul Hoggard said the automaker wants the speedometers to be easy to read, so it’s worth setting the typical operating speed of American cars, 75 to 112 km/h (45 at 70 mph), indicated at the top of the The speedometer, which is the easiest place for the driver to read. To do this, while maintaining an attractive symmetrical speedometer, would require a gauge that displays much higher operating speeds, he pointed out.

So cars, like some Toyota Corollas, have a speedometer of 160 mph (260 km/h) even though they are nowhere near reaching such speeds.

Speedometers exceeding legal driving speeds have long been the norm in the United States, according to speedometer and car safety experts. This trend has continued into the twenty-first century even as the number of traffic deaths has risen.

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

Woolsey explained that speedometers changed more in the 1950s after Ford and Chrysler introduced the Thunderbird and 300, respectively. His speedometers, he said, hit 150 mph (240 km/h), and served as the starting point for a popularized 260 km/h speedometer. The first 160 mph speedometer you knew was in the 1950s Cunningham C-3.

Vintage interior of a 1955 Ford Thunderbird featuring steering wheel and dash in teal and aqua. (Photo: Arterra/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

However, these long speedometers have a controversial history.

Some auto safety experts say long-range speedometers can normalize high-speed driving and subtly contribute to people traveling at dangerous speeds of more than 100 mph (160 km/h).

Joan Claybrook, who served as director of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) from 1977 to 1981, told CNN Business that she was “absolutely angry” at the high speedometers during his tenure.

So the NHTSA issued a rule in 1979 that speedometers should not indicate speeds greater than 136 km/h (85 mph).

“The auto industry has gone crazy,” Claybrook recalls. “I won’t budge. I put my body on the line at this.”

Claybrook said speedometers are dangerous and can cause kids to test the limits of their cars.

“Young people, ages 16 to 25, always want to try,” Claybrook said. “It is very tempting for minors to defy this higher speed.”

The speedometers were redesigned to conform to the 1979 rule. But this did not last long.

The restriction was lifted once the Reagan administration took power and Claybrook left.

Jo Young, a spokesperson for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, told CNN Business that he was not aware of any research examining the relationship between speedometer design and travel speeds. But he said contact is not ruled out.

“It’s a clear assumption that drivers may feel more comfortable accelerating when there is still a long way to go on the speedometer,” Young said. He said that the relationship between collision velocity and collision energy is not linear, so slightly increasing the velocity can have serious consequences, pointing to the research results.

Some consumers may see a powerful speedometer as a selling point, as it indicates that the driver has a particularly powerful car.

Many speedometers have switched to a digital display, which only shows the vehicle’s current speed. Apple is including a potential design in its CarPlay offering. The company declined to comment for this story.

The Apple Carplay speedometer includes a speed limit of 160 mph in one version.

After Claybrook, auto safety leaders turned to other tactics to tackle speed.

NHTSA launched a campaign this week, “Speeding Wrecks Lives,” that aims to change traditional attitudes toward speed.

It includes $8 million in media ads targeting drivers ages 18 to 44, who are most likely to be involved in fatal speed-related accidents, according to NHTSA.

“This class goes over the speed limit a little bit,” says the narrator, showing the driver, before moving on to a shot of a young man in a hospital bed. “Look at the damage.”

There were 11,258 speed-related deaths in 2020, according to NHTSA data.

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