Montana OKs A Speed Limit

Kicking off with Memorial Day, the state of Montana will start observing a speed limit, ending its status as the last state in the nation without a posted daytime limit.

After traffic fatalities jumped dramatically three-and-a-half years ago, Congress repealed the federal speed limits. Montana then began operating under the so-called "basic rule," a law requiring motorists to drive in a reasonable and prudent manner based on traffic, road, and weather conditions.

"Whether we liked it or not, it was like an invitation to people who wanted to come to Montana and really see how fast their vehicle could go," said Al Goke, chief of the state Traffic Safety Bureau. "We became a testing ground for people who wanted that freedom."

In 1997, the state Legislature rejected a speed limit bill, but that was before the year ended with 265 fatalities: the most deadly year since the early 1980s.

Then, last December, the Montana Supreme Court declared unconstitutional the vague basic-rule requirement to drive at "reasonable and proper" speeds.

The top speed on interstate highways is now 75 mph, day and night. The maximum on most two-lane roads is 70 mph during the day, and 65 mph at night.

Col. Craig Reap, chief of the Montana Highway Patrol, said enforcement of the new law will be neither lax nor especially strict.

"We don't want the public perception to be that we finally got what we wanted and we're going out there to write a bunch of tickets and we're going to be hard on everybody," he said.

Although the speed limit passed overwhelmingly in the Legislature this year, not everyone is happy with the change.

"It serves no useful purpose," said Michael Was of Bozeman, who had testified against the limits. "The speed limit does not control people's driving to the point that it will affect the fatality rate."

The return of speed limits for cars and light trucks was prefaced by a state government campaign to get the word out. Its message was succinct: "The sky is not the limit; 75 is."