HELENA - Montana Highway Patrol officers issued nearly twice as many speeding tickets over the Memorial Day weekend as they did last year as the state's new daytime speed-limit took effect Friday.

Preliminary statistics compiled by the patrol show officers wrote 694 speeding tickets from Friday through Monday, compared to 370 citations they issued over the same period Memorial Day weekend in 1998.

"It's not much more different than we anticipated," said Maj. Bert Obert, the patrol's field forces commander. "We figured there would be more speeding tickets than last year, which is understandable."

Obert said he believes the patrol and others have done a good job of informing the public about the new speed limit. Most motorists knew it was coming, he said, although some didn't know what day it the new law took effect.

The patrol issued 376 warnings for speeding over the four-day period, compared with 243 last year.

"Our officers understand there is some confusion and that habits are hard to break," he said. "Our officers are still trying to educate the public."

Obert was especially pleased by the reduction in highway fatalities over the long weekend. Over the four days, two people were killed in a pair of crashes, whereas in 1998, seven people died in six crashes.

Patrol officers investigated the same number of total accidents - 104 - over the four days in each year.

Attorney General Joe Mazurek, who led the legislative effort to enact the speed limit, said it's difficult to draw conclusions based on the preliminary figures. Memorial Day is obviously a high-traffic period on state highways, he said, although the rainy weather may have cut down on people's travel plans.

"It looks to me like the majority of the driving public is complying with the new limits," said Mazurek.

Using rough statistics, Mazurek calculated that each of the patrol's 180 field officers on average wrote 3.85 tickets over the four days, assuming everyone was on duty over the four-day weekend, which wasn't the case.

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"I think it reinforces the notion that the majority of Montanans will be unaffected in their driving habits by this new limit," Mazurek said. " Our research shows 85 percent were driving at 75 mph or below (before the new law took effect)."

While some Montanans regret the loss of their driving independence, Mazurek said he believes most "recognize it was an important public safety step and accept it on this basis."

Obert had no information on which driver was caught going the fastest speed, saying the Highway Patrol wasn't out to "sensationalize" events.

There were no specific geographical or regional breakdowns available for the speeding tickets issued over the four days, Obert said.

However, he estimated more speeding tickets were issued along Interstate 90 around Billings, Butte and Missoula than on Interstate 15, which has less traffic. In eastern Montana, the citations came in about as they do in a normal weekend, he said.

As for Highway 93, Obert said the traffic was so heavy it is hard for drivers to speed. The patrol will be better able to gauge the impact of the new law during normal travel days, he said.

The 1999 Legislature passed a law that imposes a 75 mph speed limit, both daytime and nighttime, on interstate highways for cars and light trucks. The lone exception Highway 93 from Canada to Idaho, where it's 65 mph day and night.

The speed limit is 65 mph on interstates that go through urban areas. On two-lane roads, it's 70 mph during the day and 65 mph at night for cars and light trucks.

Montana had not had a specific numerical daytime speed limit since December 1995. Drivers were expected to drive in a reasonable and prudent manner, although this part of the so-called "basic rule" was struck down by the Montana Supreme Court in December 1998.

Wednesday - 6/2/99

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