(CNN) — Apple recently revealed a new version of its CarPlay system for vehicles, which includes gauges like speedometers. But even Apple, the company that cast tradition aside when it reinvented phones, music players and headphones, bows to convention when it comes to speedometers. It featured a vintage-style speedometer that topped 200 km/h (160 mph to be exact), an auto industry norm.
That’s almost twice the highest speed limit in the United States, 85 mph (136 km/h), on a stretch of highway in Texas. Why do our speedometers stretch to a speed that is illegal and will only be achieved by racing drivers?
Toyota spokesman Paul Hogard said the automaker wants speedometers to be easy to read, so it’s worth putting the typical operating speed for American cars, 75 to 112 km/h (45 at 70 mph), indicated at the top of the speedometer, which is the easiest place for the driver to read it. To do this, while maintaining a visually appealing symmetrical speedometer, requires a gauge that displays much higher operating speeds, he noted.
So vehicles, like some Toyota Corollas, have a speedometer of 160 mph (260 km/h) despite not coming close to reaching such speeds.
Speedometers that extend far beyond legal driving speeds have long been the norm in the US, according to speedometer and auto safety experts. The trend continued into the 21st century even as deaths from traffic accidents 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 changed even more in the 1950s after Ford and Chrysler introduced the Thunderbird and 300, respectively, Woolsey explained. Its speedometers reached 150 mph (240 km/h), he claimed, and were a springboard for the popularization of 260 km/h speedometers. The first 160 mph speedometer that he knows of was on the 1950s Cunningham C-3.
However, these tall 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 over 100 mph (160 km/h).
Joan Claybrook, who served as administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) from 1977 to 1981, told CNN Business that she was “absolutely infuriated” by high-speed speedometers. during his tenure.
So the NHTSA issued a rule in 1979 that speedometers must not indicate speeds greater than 136 km/h (85 mph).
“The auto industry went crazy,” Claybrook recalled. “I wouldn’t budge. I put my body on the line on this.”
Claybrook said speeding speedometers are dangerous and can push youngsters to test the limits of their cars.
“Young people, 16 to 25 years old, they always want to try,” Claybrook said. “It’s very tempting for the minors to challenge and go at that higher speed.”
The speedometers were redone to comply with the 1979 rule. But this was short-lived.
The limitation was lifted once the Reagan administration took power and Claybrook left.
Joe Young, a spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, told CNN Business that he was not aware of any research studying the relationship between speedometer design and travel speeds. But he said a connection is not ruled out.
“It’s a clear assumption that drivers may feel more comfortable speeding up when there’s still a long way to go in the speedometer,” Young said. The relationship between impact speed and crash energy isn’t linear, so increasing speed a bit can have big consequences, she said, noting research findings.
Some consumers may see a powerful speedometer as a selling point, as it suggests the driver has a particularly powerful vehicle.
Many speedometers have made the transition to a digital display, which only shows the current speed of the vehicle. Apple includes a potential design in its CarPlay demo. The company declined to comment for this story.
Following Claybrook, car safety leaders have turned to other tactics to address speeding.
The NHTSA launched a campaign this week, “Speeding Wrecks Lives,” that aims to change conventional attitudes toward 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 fatal crashes, according to the NHTSA.
“This class goes over the speed limit a little bit,” a narrator says, showing a driver, before moving on to a shot of a young man in a hospital bed. “Look at the damage.”
There were 11,258 speeding-related crash fatalities in 2020, according to NHTSA data.