Does Montana’s Speed Limit Make Highways Safer?

Four Montana state legislators — three Republicans and one Democrat — will introduce legislation next month that would raise Montana’s daytime speed limit on interstate highways from 75 miles per hour to 80-85 miles per hour.

While politicians, activists, transportation officials, and police groups have already begun discussing the potential consequences of raising Montana’s interstate speed limit, data from the Montana Dept. of Transportation (MDT) and a 2000-2001 study from the National Motorists Association (NMA) shows that the period from 1995-199, when the state had no numerical daytime speed limit on interstates or rural highways, was a relatively safe time for Montana motorists.

“The [NMA] study shows the safest period on Montana’s Interstate highways was when there were no daytime speed limits or enforceable speed laws,” NMA stated in 2001. “The doubling of fatal accidents occurred after Montana implemented its new safety program; complete with federal funding, artificially low speed limits and full enforcement.”

Somewhat infamously, from the fall of 1995 — when the U.S. Congress repealed the National Maximum Speed Law — to Memorial Day 1999, Montana had no numerical daytime speed limit on interstate and rural highways, as the state legislature refused to set a numerical limit, leaving the phrase “reasonable and prudent” as the only restriction.

The NMA study notes that there were 27 traffic fatalities — a modern low — on Montana interstate highways in the 12 months leading up to the state’s adoption of a 75 mile per hour daytime limit. In the 12 months after the speed limit was adopted, traffic fatalities on Montana interstates more than doubled to 56. The study also notes a 12-18 percent increase in traffic volume from 1994-1999.

In the years 1995-1999, Montana averaged 36.8 traffic fatalities per year on interstate highways. Overall traffic fatalities in Montana averaged 227 during the five year “reasonable and prudent” era,  while overall traffic fatalities averaged 245 a year in the five years after the speed limit was adopted according to the MDT data.

During the “reasonable and prudent” era, the charge for a numerical speed limit was led by then-Republican Gov. Marc Racicot in the name of public safety, meeting stiff resistance from citizens and the state legislature. In 1998, the Montana Supreme Court declared the “reasonable and prudent” standard unconstitutional, due to its vagueness, and the 1999 Montana legislature finally relented and passed the 75 mile per hour maximum speed limit.

Attributing direct causes to upturns or downturns of traffic deaths is always a tricky business. MDT’s statistics show, for example, that in any given year 30-50% of fatal accidents involve alcohol consumption, and recent statistics show a major overall drop in fatalities since 2007. However, the statistics seem to contradict claims that a lower speed limit automatically makes roads safer.

NMA holds that “true highway safety can only be achieved by following sound engineering practices.”

The four state legislators carrying legislation to raise the speed limit to 80-85 miles per hour in 2015 are state Reps. Mike Miller (R-Helmville) and Art Wittich (R-Bozeman), and state Sens. Scott Sales (R-Bozeman) and Jonathan Windy Boy (D-Box Elder).

In a telephone interview with Media Trackers, Miller claimed that the four legislators had worked independently of each other to come up with the bill ideas. When asked to discuss why he put forward a bill noted that neighboring states of Utah, Wyoming, and Idaho have recently raised speed limits to 80 miles per hour without many adverse affects, he also pointed to the statistics showing that the “reasonable and prudent” period was a relatively safe period for travel in Montana.

“I see that once we went from the reasonable and prudent back in May of 99 down to a 75 speed limit that fatalities actually increased,” stated Rep. Miller. “I think that people drove, back in the 1995-1999 time frame, at speeds they were comfortable with.”