With A Roar, Montana Drops Day Speed Limit

BUTTE, Mont. - It's 123 miles from Missoula to Butte. I drove it in 1 hour and 29 minutes Friday, for an average speed of 82.92 miles an hour.

Before Friday, that would have been legally impossible. But on Dec. 8, Montana became the only state in the country to have no daytime speed limit for cars on its major highways, the result of a new federal transportation law that did away with speed restrictions that had been in force since 1974.

Heading out of Missoula on this clear, 6-degree day, on a section of Interstate 90 that stretched between snow-covered mountains, my Ford Explorer hurtled along at 95 miles an hour.

Mile after mile passed like that. For once, no cars passed. Vehicles in the right lane quickly appeared, were overtaken and disappeared; signs on the sides of trucks, saying things like "Garden City Plumbing," got a split-second glance before they faded away.

At such speeds, interstate highways suddenly develop real curves, and signs that say bridges may be icy become very pertinent.

Montana drivers have their doubts about this life in the fast lane. A poll by the Great Falls Tribune newspaper published Friday indicates 60 percent of state residents favor a daytime interstate speed limit.

But lacking such a limit now, it's possible to drive here as most Americans have never legally driven.

Such speed doesn't come without cost. Even dropping to 85 mph on the 293-mile drive from Ritzville, Wash., to Missoula, the Explorer got 24.01 miles a gallon. For the 194-mile high-speed trip from Missoula to Butte and then north into Helena, it got 10.43 miles a gallon.

That kind of fuel guzzling is what led to national efforts to slow highway speeds back in 1973. It was then, at the height of energy shortages caused by the Arab oil embargo, that Montana's long-running feud with the federal government began.

At that time, Congress required states to set freeway speed limits at 55 mph or lose federal highway funds. Most states obliged, initially seeing it as their contribution to energy conservation and then, as highway deaths decreased, as an effective safety measure.

Not so Montana. State legislators set a 55-mph limit, but defiantly pegged the speeding fine at just $5 - a pittance payable directly to the highway patrol officer.

Violations didn't count against driving records, and some Montanans simply kept a stash of $5 bills over the visor, ready to pay and go.

When Congress and President Clinton told the states to decide their own speed limits, Montana stood ready, having passed legislation decreeing a return to 1973's "proper and reasonable" standard, also known as the "basic rule" speeding law.

That standard was, and is, vaguely defined. It essentially requires motorists to drive "prudently." Just what that means is undefined.

Even those enforcing the new law are unsure about how it will work.

"There're a lot of factors we need to consider," says Capt. Richard C. Chase, commander of the Missoula District of the Montana Highway Patrol.

Police say weather, vehicle condition, age of the driver, and road type are all things that would be taken into consideration when a driver is pulled over.

One obvious measure of the law's success will be the number of accidents that occur.

In the two decades of posted speed limits, there's been a dramatic drop in Montana's traffic fatalities, from about 400 a year to 200, and state officials will be watching closely to see if the trend reverses.

Chase says there are many misconceptions about the new law. It doesn't apply to trucks, for example, and there's still a night 65-mph limit on Montana interstates, and a night limit of 55 on other highways. But neither interstates nor two-lane state highways have set daytime limits for passenger vehicles.

"Our officers have always had a lot of discretion," Chase says. And how the law is enforced may depend on what happens in courts, he adds. Since no citations issued under the new law have gone to court, it's unknown if they'll result in convictions. If they don't, that could curtail writing many "basic rule" tickets.

"I'd venture to say that on the Montana interstates, we'd be stopping vehicles at 100 miles an hour," says Chase. "I'm hoping that in the legislative session in January of 1997, a speed limit of some sort will be established."

But to Judge Wallace Jewell of Lewis and Clark County Justice Court in Helena, there's no speed that would necessarily result in a conviction.

"Not necessarily, no," he says. "Ninety-five on the interstate between here and Billings might be perfectly OK."

Jewell says he's had state troopers ask him specifically what speed would be needed before they could issue a ticket.

"You can't answer that," he says.

In the basement of the Lewis and Clark County Courthouse, there's still another perspective on the law.

That's where M.E. (Mickey) Nelson, county coroner, has had his offices since 1974. His county, about the size of Rhode Island, has about 10 fatal traffic accidents a year.

About 70 percent, he says, are related to alcohol, and almost none of them have been caused by speeding alone.

"We have virtually no fatal accidents attributable just to speed," he says.

"I see no change, really. Well over half of the accidents take place in designated speed zones that this law won't even touch," he says, such as on city streets.

Nelson adds, however, that he has a "running bet" with a state trooper.

"He swears to God Montana is going to end up being a slaughterhouse," says Nelson. "I think he's wrong."

Information from Associated Press included in this report.