Montanans may put on the brakes, after all

State bill and court ruling foreshadow an end to the days of noposted speed limits on Big Sky highways.

When Montana abolished its numeric, daytime speed limit in 1995, asking only that drivers use "reasonable and proper judgment," motorists here rejoiced at the idea of attaining greater freedom behind the wheel.

But now, citing growing confusion over ambiguous traffic enforcement, rising speeds, and a slight rise in fatalities, citizens in this fiercely independent state are actually demanding more government regulation on the open road.

After three years of providing America with a high-plains version of the German autobahn, Montana lawmakers today will begin hastily crafting a new law intended to put the state's reputation as a paradise for lead-footed motorists in the rearview mirror.

"If we could look upon this as an experiment, then it has shown us a nonnumeric speed limit, while romantic in the eyes of some, doesn't work with today's motorists," says Col. Craig Reap, chief of the Montana Highway Patrol.

Since 1995, when Congress repealed the 65 m.p.h. national speed limit on interstates, Americans have debated the question: How fast is too fast? While statistics show that the nation's traffic fatality rate has fallen to its lowest level since 1966, many highway-safety advocates still say higher speeds are directly related to more deaths. For instance, in California, fatalities actually rose 9.7 percent on roads where the speed limit increased from 65 m.p.h. to 70 m.p.h.

As for Montana, many motorists here have said enough is enough. Tired of drivers who push their speedometers into triple digits and out-of-staters who reroute trips to take a ride on Big Sky highways, they overwhelmingly favor a return to numeric speed limits, polls say. And their voices may be an indication that, in the great speed debate, there's a limit to how far states can go.

"Most people want a clearer definition of how fast they, and those around them, can drive," Colonel Reap adds.

The court speaks

The state House of Representatives - which had already planned on taking up the speed-limit issue - got an extra nudge from the courts in late December. A cattle dealer from Billings, Mont., who was arrested three times for driving 102, 117, and 121 m.p.h., appealed his traffic convictions to the Montana Supreme Court, arguing successfully that state law wasn't clear in telling him how fast he could go. The high court sided with the rancher, criticizing the vagueness of the nonnumeric speed limit and tossing out a portion of the so-called Basic Rule because of the confusion it generated.

Although state troopers can still arrest motorists who are "driving hazardously," the decision has prompted lawmakers to move more quickly. A bipartisan bill, drafted by Gov. Marc Racicot (R) and state Attorney General Joe Mazurek (D), already has been introduced to the House.

If everything proceeds smoothly, the goal is to have a law prescribing a 75 m.p.h. speed limit on interstates and a 65 m.p.h. limit on two-lane highways as early as the start of spring.

Liberty or liability?

Advocates of maintaining the nonnumeric limit say the Basic Rule was the ultimate example of liberty for American motorists. "The speed limit is a typical paternalistic government measure premised on the thinking that people can't take care of themselves," argues J. Bishop Grewell, research associate with the Political Economy Research Center, a national libertarian think tank headquartered in Bozeman.

Mr. Grewell points to a Montana State University study that found no major correlation between increasing speeds and either highway deaths or accident rates based on number of miles traveled.

Yet highway-safety activists who pressed for reform disagree and assert that if just one life is saved, the effort is worthwhile. (In 1995, 215 people died in highway accidents in Montana compared with 198 in 1996, 261 in 1997, and at least 223 in 1998.)

Reap of the highway patrol says the novelty of Montana's speed law attracted so much attention that tourists in the US and Canada were rerouting vacation itineraries to drive through the state. "There were people who came to Montana solely to see how fast they could drive legally at speeds they had never driven before," he says.

Studies commissioned by the highway patrol showed that average rates of speed were still climbing in 1998, prompting the state to launch an advertising campaign aimed at dissuading Indy 500 wannabes.

Billboards were posted along major highways just inside the state border; thousands of bumper stickers were distributed free; and a blitz of posters reached truck stops and highway rest areas - all of them bearing the message: "Yes, Mario [Andretti], there is a speed limit in Montana."

Reap acknowledges that arrests were made at the complete discretion of individual officers, but most violators who created driving hazards were obvious.

And now, the good news

The heartening lesson learned here in Montana, Reap adds, is that most motorists instinctively drive reasonably and in accordance with existing road conditions. Typically, people who received tickets far outpaced the normal flow of traffic.

"The irony is that people do know how to drive safely and responsibly," he says. "They don't need a speed limit to tell them that, but sometimes it helps."

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