Montana Reconsiders Daytime 'Autobahn'

Higher speed limits get mixed safety reviews nationwide, but fatalities increase in Big Sky state.

When he entered Montana on Interstate 90, John Foote was particularly pleased.

That's because two states back, in slowpoke Washington, the Seattle resident had gotten nabbed for going 82 m.p.h. in a 70 m.p.h. zone. In wide-open Montana, he nudged the needle past 82 without a second thought - there was no speed limit to break.

Montana is, in many ways, the touchstone for a national debate. Some 20 months after Congress dropped the federal speed limit, it remains the only state that has totally jettisoned daytime speed limits. And as such, the "Montana Autobahn" has been both defended and despised as the ultimate laboratory for how speed and safety concerns play out.

Nationwide, the figures from increased state-by-state speed limits are, at best, mixed. Twenty-seven states increased their for at least half of 1996. According to a poll by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 13 of these reported fewer traffic fatalities than in the previous year.

The figures in Montana, however, are more stark. High-speed driving fatalities are up 15 percent this year. During 1995 and 1996 Montana averaged 129 highway-traffic deaths through Aug. 10. This year, that number has risen to 148.

For many, this is proof enough that Montana needs to go back to posting daytime speed limits to go along with maximums that still exist for trucks and for nighttime auto travel. State Democratic Reps. Joe Quilici and Trudi Schmidt have called for a special legislative session to reconsider speed limits, rather than waiting until the Legislature reconvenes nearly 16 months from now.

It's not us

Much of the debate here revolves around the driving habits of out-of-staters, who, many Montanans say, lack the experience to be driving the state's often treacherous roads at breakneck speeds. Severe weather conditions here often leave packed snow and ice, and, even in dry weather, roads are ravaged by the effects of the constantly changing conditions.

Representative Quilici says many out-of-state drivers have heard about the fact that Montana so far is the only place to abandon posted daytime speed limits in favor of a "basic rule." Yet that basic rule - that motorists drive in a "reasonable and prudent manner" in the absence of posted speeds - is too often misunderstood, he adds.

What are the rules?

"People from out of state think they can go as fast as they can," Quilici recently told reporters. In fact, when there is no posted daytime speed limit, tickets can still be issued at any time and at any speed. Officers can ticket any driver who isn't driving in a fashion deemed prudent under the circumstances.

Out-of-state drivers "hit Montana and they think they're in the Indianapolis 500," Quilici says. Indeed, earlier this year, a Mercedes Benz rally raced across Montana, often hitting 100 m.p.h.

While no consensus exists so far about changing Montana's speed code, the public debate has reached a critical mass. Concern has spilled over to certain local jurisdictions as well, where court clerks say they can't handle the paperwork from all the citations for basic-rule violations. And the hot topic of conversation among residents normally given to discourse about population growth and outdoor recreation is now the state's speed limits.

A number of more conservative state representatives favor keeping the basic rule, citing statistics that support out-of-state drivers. They say just 25 out-of-state cars were involved in the 122 fatal high-speed accidents through Aug. 10 of this year.

And what about the out-of-staters themselves? The pressure to back off Montana's the-sky's-the-limit speed codes brings mixed reactions.

Even though it takes Denver's Art Bush at least two hard days to cross this Germany-size state, he says would prefer some sort of a limit - at least 75 or 80.

Yet Seattle's Foote admits that the apparent freedom of the basic rule is somewhat thrilling.

Upon hitting an open, empty stretch of road, Foote says he floored his Volkswagen Golf.

"Just once," he says, "I wanted to see what it was like to go 105," which he did - legally.

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