Forty years ago Montana had no set speed limit. Then the federal government imposed a limit of 55 mph, which remained the law of the land until the mid-'90s, when Congress finally lifted it. For a few brief years, Montana drivers could once again determine for themselves what speed was "reasonable and prudent."
That ended in May 1999, after the Montana Supreme Court found the "reasonable and prudent" warning unconstitutionally vague and the Montana Legislature passed a law setting the current 75 mph speed limit on interstate roads during daylight hours.
Now, four state legislators have drafted separate bills that would raise the speed limit on Montana's interstate highways to 80 or, in the case of one bill, up to 85 mph. The primary motivation behind each of the bills seems to be saving time for Montana commuters.
Nearby states – such as Idaho, Utah and Wyoming – have already increased their limits to 80 mph on rural interstates during daylight hours. The question is, what impact has the increase had on safety? Have the number of crashes increased? Is the risk of death or injury higher?
If a close study of the effect of higher speed limits in other states reveals no negative trade-offs, then perhaps Montana residents should indeed have the freedom to decide if they wanted to save a little time by spending a little more gas money. Montana just doesn't have that much traffic and most of our roads are large, open stretches. Further, newer vehicles run more efficiently and smoothly, making it possible to drive safely at higher speeds.
However, Montana Highway Patrol Chief Col. Tom Butler, who wisely refuses to comment on legislation he hasn't read, recently told a Missoulian state bureau reporter that in general, “The faster you go, the less time you have to react and the harder you stop." That piece of common sense would seem to indicate that raising the speed limit would indeed result in more crashes and deaths.
The draft bill from Sens. Scott Sales, R-Bozeman, and Jonathan Windy Boy, D-Box Elder, proposes the highest increase - up to 85 mph. Currently, only Texas has a speed limit that high (on a single stretch of interstate about 40 miles long). Both senators are personally familiar with Montana's highways; Sales drove the long, long trip from his home in Bozeman to the Bakken oil patch and back for about seven months, and Windy Boy has driven across Montana and beyond for years to attend powwows.
Republican Rep. Mike Miller, who hails from Helmville, has also proposed a bill to increase the speed limit, as has Rep.-elect Art Wittich, another Bozeman Republican. Wittich's bill specifically directs the Montana Department of Transportation to review Montana's interstates to determine which sections might be suitable for a higher limit.
Not all sections of interstate would be, of course. Only long, straight roads, and only roads that don't share lanes of traffic traveling in opposite directions, should even be considered.
But even more than these factors, lawmakers should give top consideration to the fact that Montana's vehicle fatality rate is already too high. Indeed, year after year, Montana has logged one of the highest rates in the nation of fatalities per 100 million vehicle miles of travel. And speed is a factor in about 35 percent of traffic fatalities, whether drivers are truly speeding, or just driving too fast for conditions.
In 2012, 204 people died in 191 vehicle crashes in Montana. In 2013, the number was 224 deaths in 198 crashes. So far this year, at least 185 people have died.
But 40 years ago, when Montana lacked any set speed limits at all and the state's population was much lower, more than 330 people died each year in vehicle accidents.
So if the price of saving a little time on Montana's roads is even one life, that's too high a price - and too high a speed limit.