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It's a common belief that speed limits are designed to keep us safe. Few of us like to heed them, but we believe they exist to keep us safe and thus grudgingly abide by them, because we believe they are there for our own good. A closer look at the facts, however, will put this misconception to rest.
The truth is: speed limits do not keep you safe. If anything, they put you at greater risk of being involved in a fatal car accident.
To better understand this, let's consider the case of the only state that until recently had no speed limits (more or less): Montana.
For a long time, Montana held the honor of being the only state with no daytime speed limits. Many can recall when Montana had no maximum speed other than driving in a “reasonable and prudent” manner:
According to Montana Standard, Montana had no daytime speed limit throughout its history until 1974. That’s when Congress, at President Richard Nixon’s urging, passed a 55 mph daytime highway speed limit aimed at saving fuel after the oil crisis the previous year. The new speed limit became derisively known as “the double nickel.”
Clearly, however, Montana was not happy about Uncle Sam telling her what to do: After the federal government threatened to withhold highway funding for states that refused to comply, Montana enacted a $5 fine for “wasting a natural resource” for drivers caught exceeding the 55 mph speed limit. Tickets for these speeding violations never went on drivers’ records under the Montana law. Some drivers kept wads of $5 bills in their glove compartments and had one ready to hand an officer, along with their driver’s licenses, when stopped.
Eventually, Uncle Sam started loosening up: Under the Surface Transportation and Uniform Relocation Assistance Act, Congress permitted states to raise their speed limits to 65 mph on rural interstate highways. Later that year, Congress allowed non-interstate rural roads that met interstate standards to have higher speed limits.
Finally, in December 1995, Congress threw out the federal 55 mph speed limit passed in 1974. Without the federal law, Montana operated with only its basic rule, which required motorists to drive in a “reasonable and prudent manner,” based on weather and road conditions during the day.
Sadly, the Montana Supreme Court struck down the "reasonable and prudent" speed limit in a 4-3 decision in 1998, calling it "unconstitutionaly vague". Today, the maximum speed limit in Montana is 80mph. However, Montana's infamous lack of speed limits is, well, still infamous, albeit incorrectly. Here's what the blogger "Daily Montana" had to say about this:
When I first meet out-of-state people and tell them that I'm from Montana, as often as not the response I get is something like, "Oh, that's where you can drive as fast as you want." This despite the fact that our state's highways have had arbitrary speed limits for over a decade, now. Old stereotypes die hard.
This isn't an anti-government libertarian diatribe. Critics of the Montana Supreme Court's decision (and there are many) point to the fact that speed limits in Montana have actually made roads less safe. Yes, you read that right!
Why is that speed limits lead to more fatalities? Because speed limits are completely arbitrary and force people to drive at speeds they may not be comfortable driving at.
Contrary to what people may be led to believe, drivers in Montana were safest during the years in which it had no speed limits. What people need to understand is that the lack of a state-dictated numerical speed limit does not mean "drive as fast as you want" — it means drive at a speed that is comfortable for you, one that is "reasonable and prudent" — as the speed limit signs actually dictated. A few people left their comments about driving in Montana on the Daily Montana" blog. Here are a few noteworthy ones:
I remember my dad driving from Shelby (where we lived) to Great Falls in a little under an hour on two-lane roads (pre I-15). My father was an excellent driver and the only one I've ever trusted, with the exception of my spouse. Now it's around 90 miles from Shelby to Great Falls, so that would make his speed around 90 miles an hour. He didn't, of course, drive that way in inclement weather, or during a blizzard. He drove in a careful and prudent manner, something that people outside of the state never seemed to understand. I still get that "Oh, Montana. That's where you can drive like a bat out of hell." No, it's not. It's where you use common sense and common courtesy. Or it used to be...
For me, I think, the biggest point is that the speed limits are really just arbitrary numbers, and don't really have all that much to do with safety. There are certainly lots of roads in eastern Montana where one can safely drive faster than 70, despite what the speed limit says ... and there are almost as many roads up in the mountains that have the same 70 MPH speed limit, where it would be suicide to actually drive that fast. So I think "reasonable and prudent" is the only way to go. The highway patrol would save more lives if they went back to that philosophy ... ticketing people who don't bother to slow down when roads get icy, for example.
I drove in Montana in the 60's & 70's. Actually the "reasonable & prudent" limits worked quite well. If you were on slick roads or some other hazardous situation you were expected to slow down; if you were traveling at 90-100 mph you were not reasonable nor were you prudent! Tickets were issued and could be paid on the spot!
There are far more people who support the elimination of numerical speed limits. On January 6, 1996, ibiblio.org asked people what they thought of Montana's "reasonable and prudent" speed limit, which at the time was still in effect. The vast majority of people supported the return to "reasonable and prudent". You can read some of the numerous comments on their website.
But this conclusion is backed up by far more than personal testimonies. According to Media Trackers:
Data from the Montana Dept. of Transportation (MDT) and a 2000-2001 study from the National Motorists Association (NMA) shows that the period from 1995-1999, 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.”
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.
The NMA's actual press release contains a few more details as well:
- After the new Speed Limits were established, interstates fatal accidents went up 111%. From a modern low of 27 with no daytime limits, to a new high of 56 fatal accidents with speed limits.
- On interstates and federal primary highways combined, Montana went from a modern low of 101 with no daytime limits, to a new high of 143 fatal accidents with speed limits.
- After a 6 year downward trend in the percentage of multiple vehicle accidents on its 2 lane primary highways, multiple vehicle accident rates increased again.
Many Montanan legislators agree as well:
“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.”
This begs the essential questions. Should states leave it up to drivers to determine what speeds are "safe"? Or should the states dictate what speeds are "safe", even if drivers feel otherwise?
Opinions may differ, but the facts all point to this: at least in Montana, drivers are safer when they make the call as to how fast they drive, rather than be constrained by uniform speed limits that don't account for varying conditions and comfortability levels. Speed limits lull people into a false sense of security. A lack of speed limits kept Montanan drivers unusually courteous and on their toes. The NMA press release reports that people were more proactive in keeping themselves safe when Montana lacked speed limits:
With the expectation of higher speed when there was no daytime limit, Montana’s seat belt usage was well above the national average on its highways without a primary law, lane and road courtesy increased, speeds remained relatively stable and fatal accidents dropped to a modern low. After the new limits, fatal accidents climbed to a modern high on these classifications of highway, road courtesy decreased and flow conflict accidents rose again.
The NMA goes further, charging that speed limits have done nothing besides make our roads more dangerous:
For years, motorists’ advocates have used engineering-based facts against artificially low speed limits. They have claimed that by raising speed limits to reasonable levels, accident and fatality rates will actually be reduced. This seemingly wild assertion has been documented by the traffic engineering profession for 50 plus years. This fact–based position has again been proven to be true by the repeal of the National Speed Limit. The nation has recorded the lowest highway fatality rate since such records have been kept.
These same fact–based engineers point to the German Autobahn, where with no speed limits, authorities are consistently reporting lower fatality rates than comparable US highways. For the last 5 months of no daytime limits in Montana, the period after its Supreme Court had ruled that the Reasonable and Prudent law was unconstitutional, reported fatal accident rate declined to a record low. Fixed speed limits were reinstated on Memorial Day weekend 1999. Since then, fatal accidents have begun to rise again.
The NMA's conclusion condemns speed limits as an unnecessary impediment to motorist safety, given that drivers keep themselves safer when there are no speed limits at all:
This begs the question, do people change the way they drive when there is no speed limit? The evidence suggests the answer is yes. The measured vehicle speeds only changed a few miles per hour as predicted – comparable to data collected from other western states. What changed? The two most obvious changes were improved lane courtesy and increased seat belt use.
The lower–than–US fatality rates on the German Autobahn (where flow management is the primary safety strategy), and now Montana’s experience, would indicate that using speed limits and speed enforcement as the cornerstone of US highway safety policy is a major mistake. It is time to accept the fact that increases in traffic speeds are the natural by product of advancing technology. People do, in fact, act in a reasonable and responsible manner without constant government intervention.
The Montana experience solidifies the long held traffic engineering axioms:
- people don’t automatically drive faster when the speed limit is raised
- speed limit signs will not automatically decrease accident rates nor increase safety
- highways with posted speed limits are not necessarily safer than highways without posted limits
Skeptics can look at the NMA's data firsthand if they wish (scroll down to the colorful tables — you may also scroll down to the bottom of this page for the original sources). Here are a few statistics from the NMA's findings:
- Interstate fatalities more than doubled when speed limits were imposed, increasing from 27 to 56
- Fatalities on 2-lane primary highways increased slightly as well, from 74 to 87
- The last 12 month period of no daytime speed limits ended in May of 1999 with the lowest number of fatal accidents despite an estimated 12–18% increase in traffic volumes during this 6 year period.
- [The NMA study's author's] personal observations indicated that a culture had developed of slower traffic yielding the left lane by keeping right and/or moving closer to the shoulder to allow safe overtaking. Instead of increasing accidents, with the expectation of higher speeds, there should be fewer multiple vehicle accident because of better lane courtesy. It appears to be the case, as indicated by the reduction in the percentage of multiple vehicle accidents on the rural primary 2 lane highways... with the new speed limits the percentage of multiple vehicle accidents have increased again.
Summarizing the effects of no daytime speed limits, the NMA study finishes with a striking blow to speed limits:
The people of Montana and its visitors continued to drive at speeds they were comfortable with, which were often speeds lower than their counter parts on high density urban freeways with low posted limits.
The theory behind posting speed limits on these classifications of highway is to reduce conflicts in traffic flow (caused by speed differential), thereby reducing accidents. On the two lane highways flow conflict accidents (multiple vehicle) decreased when the limits were removed. When added to the Autobahn results and the no change found on Montana’s Interstates, this thesis needs to be rethought because the field data on highways without posted limits doesn’t support it. With the expectation of higher speed differentials, multiple vehicle accident rates declined even when the actual speeds did not change significantly. This suggests the changes are the result of positive motorists behavior (courtesy and due caution).
In traffic engineering findings the vehicles traveling faster than average have the lowest accident rates, yet they are the primary targets of speed enforcement. To this we can now add, with speed limits there was no positive correlation between speed enforcement and accident rates on rural free flowing highways, if anything, the highways became less safe.
The baffling conclusion that speed limits increase traffic fatalities is known as the Montana Paradox. And paradoxical as it may seem, it is true. At least in Montana, drivers were safest when they were left to judge for themselves what speed they ought to drive at. To be sure, Montana has a low population density and far less traffic than most states. But Germany has a much higher population density than Montana and has reached the same conclusion about speed limits. It's a shame that Montana is forced to have speed limits today, for the lack of them would keep Montana motorists safer.
The unfortunate thing about all this is that Montana could very conceivably still have no daytime speed limits, had it not been for the man who triggered the Supreme Court case that struck down the reasonable and prudent speed limit, Rudolph Stanko. It is because of him that Montana has been forced to adopt speed limits, and it is on his account that fatalities have consequently soared. In ordinary circumstances, one might give him a bit more slack, but's let's consider a few things. Rudy Stanko has done far worse than just force Montana to adopt speed limits (although that is certainly his most infamous offense) — according to the Billings Gazette, Rudy Stanko is a "a felon with a lengthy history of tangling with law enforcement" and "no respect for the law". He was convicted in 1984 for selling tainted meat to a federal lunch program. Of course, "he has a history of traffic violations. Stanko successfully challenged Montana's "reasonable and prudent" traffic speed law, which led to the reinstatement of a numerical speed limit on Montana's highways in 1999." Lastly, (as if we need any more reason to hate this guy) Stanko is a member of a white supremacist organization.
Had Stanko conducted himself a little bit more decently in life, it is very likely that Montana would still have no daytime speed limits. According to an article found on both Car And Driver and Yahoo Finance,
Rudy Stanko, a man of many court battles, has had only one that matters to driving enthusiasts. And his win is our loss. Stanko is the man who challenged Montana’s “reasonable and prudent” speed law, which stood between 1955 and 1974 and again between 1995 and 1999. It was Stanko’s case that gave the Montana legislature reason to impose a highway speed limit.
The article provides the background of the infamous Montana Supreme Court case:
In March 1996, Stanko was ticketed for traveling 85 mph on Montana State Highway 200. He contested the charge in justice and district courts and was convicted by a jury twice. His second appeal landed the case in the Montana Supreme Court in December 1998. That court, in a four-to-three ruling, reversed the district court’s judgment. It called the “reasonable and prudent” clause vague on the grounds that it “impermissibly delegates basic policy matters to policemen, judges, and juries for resolution on an ad hoc and subjective basis . . . ” Neither the citing officer nor the attorney general at the time were able to specify a speed that would have been safe at the location where Stanko was stopped. In its finding, the court also stated that the “reasonable and prudent” clause, because of its vagueness, denied defendants due process. It was a shallow victory.
But that's not the worst of it:
In Montana, had he opted to pay the $70 fine, he could have made the ticket go away without the violation being recorded on his driving record. And we might still have one state without a numerical speed limit.
In response to the Montana Supreme Court's ruling, the Montana Legislature set the state's daytime speed limit to 75mph in 1999. In 2015, they increased the interstate speed limit to 80mph for both day and night. A faster speed limit, however, does not necessarily approach "reasonable and prudent" in practice. As soon as an arbitrary number is imposed on a motorist, his ability to drive at a speed he is comfortable with is restricted — and this is a huge risk factor in motor vehicle accidents.
Sadly, Montana was the last safe haven in the U.S. for "lawless order". Wikipedia has this to offer:
Montana and Nevada were the last remaining U.S. states relying exclusively on the basic rule, without a specific, numeric rural speed limit prior to the National Maximum Speed Law of 1974. After repeal of Federal speed mandates in 1996, Montana was the only state to revert to the Basic Rule for daylight rural speed regulation. The Montana Supreme Court ruled that the Basic Rule was too vague to allow citation, prosecution, and conviction of a driver; in other words, enforcement was a violation of the due process requirement of the Montana Constitution. In response, Montana's legislature imposed a 75 mph (121 km/h) limit on rural freeways in 1999.
It's been almost 20 years now since Montana has had no daytime speed limits. If not for Rudy Stanko, we might still be free to drive the way God intended us to drive: reasonably, prudently, and with as much care and caution as we would hope other drivers would have. Driving enthusiasts lament the day that Rudy Stanko was born. But maybe there's hope — perhaps the Montana Legislature will amend Montana's Constitution, and reinstate "reasonable and prudent". Montanan motorists would be safer for it.
Original Research Resources — check out the actual data referenced in this article: