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Speed limit chart

Maximum posted daytime speed limits on rural interstates, July 2014. Chart courtesy of Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

HELENA — Four legislators are having separate bills drafted for the 2015 session to raise the daytime speed limit on Montana interstate highways from 75 mph to 80 mph, and in one case, 85 mph.

Proposing higher speed limits are Sens. Scott Sales, R-Bozeman, and Jonathan Windy Boy, D-Box Elder, and Rep. Ken Miller, R-Helmville, and Rep.-elect Art Wittich, R-Bozeman.

The all cited decisions by neighboring and nearby states in recent years to raise their daytime rural interstate speed limits to 80 mph.

“I’m looking at raising it from 75 to 80 where it’s safe to do so,” Miller said. “Utah, Wyoming and Idaho have all done it. Nevada is looking at it too. I didn’t see any problems in the other states.”

Wittich said his proposal is “really a freedom bill,” adding, “People want to be able to drive faster and they should be able to do that.”

“Having driven through Utah, Idaho and Wyoming, and having seen they are 80 mph, I thought it was just fine for Montana to bring up its limits too,” Wittich said. “I just think our roads are engineered well and technology is such we can drive those roads safely.”

Windy Boy said he travels around the country to dance at Native American powwows and has driven in states with 80 mph speed limits. He favors raising speed limit to 80 both on interstate and other highways in Montana.

“We all know in as big a state as Montana is, for the most part, the traffic is pretty sparse,” he said. “Once in awhile it helps to get from Point A to Point B a little quicker.”

Sales said he spent seven months working in the Bakken oil patch and driving back and forth to Bozeman regularly.

“If I could drive 85 mph on the interstate, it would save an hour,” Sales said.

He said the speed limit in his bill is negotiable. “Eighty five would be fine with me,” Sales said. “If the consensus is 80, I won’t lose any sleep.”

Texas is the lone state with an 85 mph speed limit, for a 41-mile stretch of toll road between Austin and San Antonio.

What about safety concerns?

Wittich said his bill would have the Montana Department of Transportation review the interstates to determine if some road sections shouldn’t be raised to 80 mph.

Asked if raising the speed limit will lead to more accidents, Windy Boy said, “Traffic crashes will happen no matter what the speed is. Just because the speed limit is increased doesn’t mean people will have to be careless in their driving.”

Col. Tom Butler, chief of the Montana Highway Patrol, said he can’t comment on the proposed legislation until he sees the bills once they are drafted.

But he said, “The faster you go, the less time you have to react and the harder you stop. We’re going to have the overall goal of safety and crash reduction in mind. I’m not sure where we will land on them.”

Other states have increased speed limits along long straight sections of interstates, not two-lane highways, Butler said.

“Our overall goal is to keep everyone in one piece and get them up safe,” Butler said. “Most crashes are a whole lot of little things that come together and become one big thing.”

As an example, he cited drivers becoming distracted as they adjust the temperatures or radios in their vehicles. The question, Butler said, is whether a driver can make those adjustments easily at 75 mph but perhaps not at 80 mph.

“That’s our concern,” the Highway Patrol chief added. “If we go up another 5 mph, we can have serious consequences.”

Curt Rissmann, a data specialist for the Montana Highway Patrol, said it’s hard to prove that if someone had driven slower, that person might have been able to avoid a wreck.

But he said the laws of physics do come into play: “When you’re going 85 mph, it’s going to take longer to stop.”

Accidents can depend on the types of vehicles involved, their tires, whether the roads were icy and other factors, he said.

Gov. Steve Bullock prefers not to comment on potential legislation until it comes to him for a decision, spokesman Dave Parker said.

Likewise, Attorney General Tim Fox has not seen any specific proposals yet and wants to study data to see if raising speed limits in certain areas increase fatal crashes.

A leading motorist group, AAA Mountain West, also needs more information on the specific bills, said spokeswoman Anna O’Donnell.

“Our number one concern is decreasing deaths on our highways,” she said. “One death on Montana highways is one too many. AAA recognizes the importance of selecting appropriate and enforceable speed limits. When maximum speed limits are correctly set and applied, they improve mobility, motorist safety and respect for the law.”

Russ Rader, senior vice president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety based in Arlington, Va., was on vacation last week and unavailable for comment. He is frequently quoted in the media on the speed limit and safety issue.

“Raising speed limits is popular,” he told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette last summer. “It certainly gets people to their destinations faster. But there is always a safety trade-off. When speed limits go up, deaths on those roads follow suit and go up.”

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