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‘I can’t drive 55.’ Why Montana’s speed limits keep increasing

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By Austin Amestoy and Shaylee Ragar MONTANA PUBLIC RADIO

Austin Amestoy Welcome to the Big Why, a series from Montana Public Radio where we find out what we can discover together. I’m your host, Austin Amestoy. This is a show about listener-powered reporting. We’ll answer questions large or small about anything under the Big Sky. By Montanans, for Montana, this is the Big Why. Today reporter Shaylee Ragar,

Shaylee Ragar Hey, Austin,

Shaylee Ragar Is here to answer a question from a listener about the rules of the road in Montana.

Jennifer Kohm Hi, I’m Jennifer Kohm. I live in Potomac, Montana.

Shaylee Ragar Jennifer wrote to us saying it seems like people are moving so fast all over highways around Montana.

Jennifer Kohm I have two small children and we drive Highway 200 every day, and once I had kids, I really became more conscious of how traffic accidents are now the second-leading cause of death for young kids.

Shaylee Ragar So she was curious, why are the speed limits in Montana so high?

Austin Amestoy Gosh, I remember when the speed limit on I-90 between Billings and Laurel, which is where I grew up, changed like three times in a row in a span of a few years. For a long time, it was 75, and then it hit 80, and then it dropped down to 65, and people were not very happy about that change.

Shaylee Ragar Right! It seems like Montana’s speed limits are always changing. I remember back in 2015, I was a college student in Missoula and the speed limit went up to 80 from 75, and I was hopeful that it would maybe cut down on my drive back to Belgrade, where my parents live. It did not, it didn’t seem to change much at all, but that 2015 change actually is really key to this question. More on that later, because how Montana’s speed limits came to be has a rich history that speaks to the unique politics of this place.

Austin Amestoy So where does that story start?

Shaylee Ragar Well, let’s go back 50 years or so. In the mid-1970s, Montana, along with Nevada, was one of the last two states that didn’t have a speed limit.

Austin Amestoy Wow, the real Wild West. You know, my grandparents told me a little bit about that time, but I just can’t really imagine not having a speed limit.

Shaylee Ragar Right, especially on mountain passes. But the federal government did put an end to that unfettered speeding.

Austin Amestoy Woah, how did they do that and why?

Shaylee Ragar So in 1974, amid an oil crisis, rising prices and a waning supply of fuel, President Richard Nixon signed a national speed limit of 55 miles per hour into law. And the idea was that the speed limit would be a little more fuel efficient. But you can imagine that was a huge adjustment for Montanans especially.

Terry Trieweiler Oh, it was like people were just being totally oppressed by the federal government.

Shaylee Ragar That’s former Montana Supreme Court Justice Terry Trieweiler, who dug deep into the state’s speed limit during a case in the 1990s. He had just moved here to Montana when the national speed limit was enacted, and said Montanans did not respond well.

Terry Trieweiler And it was a little heavy handed, I mean have you ever tried to drive 55 miles per hour on some of these wide-open roads in Montana? It’s very difficult.

Austin Amestoy Yeah, I can’t imagine the state was too excited to enforce that rule. So how did Montana end up responding?

Shaylee Ragar The federal government threatened to take away funding for highways from states who refused to enforce it. So begrudgingly, Montana complied, but they also kind of found a loophole. The state set the fine for speeding at only $5, so not the strongest deterrent to speeding.

Austin Amestoy Okay, so the state didn’t take it too seriously. How long was the federal limit in place? The interstate speed limit, of course, isn’t 55 miles per hour anymore.

Shaylee Ragar Right. So in 1995, President Bill Clinton repealed the national speeding law, and states were again allowed to set their own limits. So Montana went back to its old ways: no actual speed limit. Instead, the law said drivers had to drive at speeds that were “reasonable and prudent.”

Austin Amestoy Well, that doesn’t sound very objective. I mean, what’s reasonable to one person probably isn’t reasonable to someone else, right?

Shaylee Ragar Totally, and for law enforcement, it created kind of a mess. Here’s what former Justice Trieweiler had to say about that time.

Terry Trieweiler The problem was that nobody knew what the actual limitations on their speed would be.

Shaylee Ragar But then, something big happened that would change the rules of the road in Montana up to this day.

Austin Amestoy Ooh, what was it?

Shaylee Ragar This guy named Rudy Stanko was driving a sports car on Highway 200 in eastern Montana in March of 1996, and he got a ticket for driving 85 miles per hour. The person who pulled him over said that was not reasonable or prudent. Stanko challenged his ticket all the way up to the Montana Supreme Court in 1998, arguing that the law was unreasonably vague. The state’s high court agreed, and that’s why Trieweiler knows so much about the state speed limits. He wrote that ruling telling state lawmakers they have the power to set a speed limit.

Terry Trieweiler The whole point of the decision is the legislature is free to make that decision, but law enforcement isn’t free to make that decision on an arbitrary or discriminatory basis from one vehicle to another, depending on how they feel that day.

Shaylee Ragar So the state legislature did just that in 1999 and set a daytime limit of 75 miles per hour, but that wasn’t the end of lawmakers fiddling with the speed limit.

Austin Amestoy Right. As we know, the speed limit signs on the interstates say 80 today. So where did those extra five miles per hour come from?

Shaylee Ragar That’s how we get to the answer to our listeners question. Let’s go back to 2015 to the state legislative session. Republican Senator Scott Sales thought that 75 miles per hour was just too slow, so he proposed upping it to 80.

Scott Sales States around us are doing this right and left. We happen to live in the fourth largest state, it does take a little bit of time to get across it. And I think it’ll save some people some time and hopefully some money, and I think we can do it safely.

Austin Amestoy So who is on board for the change and who wasn’t?

Shaylee Ragar The Montana Highway Patrol came out in support of the bill, saying they knew there was an appetite to increase the speed limit. However, there was a decent amount of opposition, especially because the increase also applied to semi-trucks, albeit those had a smaller increase than passenger vehicles. One of those opponents was Kelly Flaherty Settle. She’s a rancher with a cow operation north of Helena, and she told lawmakers commercial trucks shouldn’t be driving that fast, that it would be hazardous.

Kelly Flaherty Settle This isn’t a time saving issue and it’s not a keeping up with the Joneses issue. This is a safety issue.

Austin Amestoy But as we know, those speed limit signs say 80. So the bill must have passed anyway.

Shaylee Ragar Yes, it did, and there was a lot of debate, but that’s how we got to the highway speed limit we have today. Montana, once known for its wild, limitless roads, did not want to be left behind as other Western states increase their speed limits. Idaho, Nevada, South Dakota, Utah and others have set 80 mile per hour speed limits on at least some sections of road.

Austin Amestoy Yeah, that seems to fit right in with Western culture. But Shaylee, is there any sense of how that increase might have impacted safety on highways?

Shaylee Ragar There’s no way to know for certain, but what we do know is that Montana continues to see above average traffic fatalities when compared to the rest of the country. In fact, some of the highest rates among any state, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The state did see a decrease in traffic deaths a couple of years after the speed limit bump. But since 2020, that number has been rising again. I will also note that when the speed limit increased here, so did the fines for speeding. So keep that in mind the next time you’re driving on a Montana highway.

Austin Amestoy I’ll file it away, Shaylee. Thank you so much for digging into this one for us.

Shaylee Ragar No problem, Austin.

Austin Amestoy Now we want to know what makes you curious about Montana. This show is all about answering your questions, so submit one today. Find us wherever you listen to podcasts and help others find the show by sharing it and leaving us a review.

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