Speed limits are something that is determined by local authorities in each State, so that there are no specific federally set speed limits – the highways are therefore not homogenous in their expectations of safe speeds. Notably, Montana has eliminated its highways speed limits, a move that has opened up debate on whether or not speed limits keep the roads safer for drivers. Did Montana drivers benefit from safer roads because of the lack of limits, or was this an unwise move on the part of the Montana government?
According to the National Motorists Association, the initial period of no limits for speed was one of the safest on Montana highways, followed by a period of road fatalities that doubled with the reimplementation of speed limits and full enforcement of those laws. The real question becomes, why is this the case? Why would established speed limits, created solely for the regulation of traffic and the safety of all those on the road, lead to more fatalities than without any restrictions on speed whatsoever? Researchers believe that the reason behind this odd circumstance may be the fact that the Montana government didn’t put enough research and thought into the new laws; it simply gave into pressure for the legislation and so miscommunication between law and drivers was to blame for heightened accidents on the highway.
Currently, Montana highways require drivers to travel at to “reasonable and prudent” standard, something clearly up for interpretation and debate. This means that it is also up to the local law enforcement agents to decide what a safe speed really is: weather conditions, traffic flow and the condition of the vehicle in question are all elements that must be considered by both the drivers on Montana highways and the police who patrol them. With such legislation, prosecution of speeders or otherwise unsafe drivers becomes very difficult as the driver may argue the case that according to his or her own perspective, the speed was indeed ‘reasonable and prudent’.
In terms of speed, it is documented that speed limits have no strict impact on the speed at which people will drive. Many comment that whatever the limit is, people will drive 10 mph over – based on this thinking, traffic planners have decided that the only real course of action is to stop wasting money on ticketing and enforcement of a speed law that will largely be discounted by drivers. To leave the safety of the road in the hands of the actual drivers seems to have had a big impact on Montana roads and planners agree that this freedom in comparison to poorly implemented speed laws that can possibly confuse commuters is much more effective.
It seems safe to say that at least in some circumstances, the best form of road safety is in letting the drivers take control over their own safety and that of the other people on the road.