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Automobile enthusiasts often describe an almost mythic
reverence for Germany’s autobahn system, a network of national highways famous
for their liberal traffic speed laws.

Of course, we’re talking specifically about German autobahns. Switzerland and
Austria also refer to major highways as autobahns, and the Swiss and Austrians
enforce blanket speed limits.

But, contrary to popular opinion, the German autobahns don’t
completely lack speed limits. In fact, stretches near urban areas and major
exit and entrance ramps have been subject to enforced speed restrictions for
years.

This is not to say that German autobahns’ reputation as a
speed-freak’s driving nirvana is unearned; large sections of the highway
network do operate with no enforced speed limits. In these areas, which comprise
the largest portion of the network, one can expect to see a healthy population
of high-end German automobiles designed to cruise comfortably at well over the
recommended speed limit of 130 kilometers per hour (approximately 80 miles per
hour).

In exchange for the privilege of testing the upper limits of
your car’s engine, be prepared to observe some strictly enforced
non-speed-related traffic laws: Pass only on the left, wear seatbelts at all
times, and don’t dare run out of gas. Any and all of these infractions will
earn you hefty fines!

Sadly, the German autobahns’ days of laissez-faire vehicle
velocity could be drawing to a close. The German authorities are considering
changing the recommended speed limit to an enforced speed limit.

Various factors are influencing this pending decision,
including a desire to bring the German autobahns into compliance with the other
European highway systems to which they connect, a growing environmental
movement to cut down on vehicle emissions by regulating autobahn speeds, and several
fatal high-speed car accidents on autobahns that have caught public attention.

However, this autobahn speed limit issue should be of
interest not only to German driving enthusiasts but to Americans as well. In
fact, transportation experts continue to analyze data from one U.S. state’s
brief, unplanned experiment with no-speed-limit highways in the 1990s.

WHAT U.S. STATE FEATURED HIGHWAYS WITH NO SPEED LIMITS FOR
SEVERAL YEARS DURING THE 1990s?

What U.S. state undertook a brief, unplanned experiment with
highways with no speed limits—similar to the German autobahns—in the 1990s?

Montana is the state in question. Imposing no posted daytime
speed limit from Dec. 8, 1995, to May 28, 1999, it instead enforced
“reasonable and prudent” driving speeds for the bulk of that period.
Montana police typically defined “reasonable and prudent” as around
80 mph, so one could argue that this vague guideline was nonetheless more
stringent than the freedom afforded by Germany’s no-limit autobahn speeds.

However, for the last five months on the Montana
“experiment,” the reasonable and prudent standard was not in effect.
The Montana Supreme Court ruled that the statute was too vague.

So, for five months, Montana effectively had no enforced
daytime highway speed limit. (A 65 mph nighttime speed limit was always in
effect.) In May 1999, Montana enacted a 75 mph daytime speed limit on its
highways.

The impetus behind this period was equal parts political and
incidental. From 1974 to 1995, Montana—as well as every state in the union—had
a federally mandated maximum highway speed limit of 55 mph.

This federal law was originally a temporary measure during
the energy crisis of the mid-1970s. However, an immediate decline in highway
traffic fatalities convinced Congress to make the 55 mph law permanent in 1974.

By 1995, transportation experts realized that a number of
factors beyond mere speed limits had helped lower highway traffic fatalities.
The federal government repealed the 55 mph mandate in 1995.

Rather than enacting a state-level highway speed limit as
every other state did, Montana reverted to its 1973 reasonable and prudent
standard. The State Supreme Court forced the Montana legislature to act when it
struck down “reasonable and prudent,” resulting in the more common 75
mph posted limit you’ll see today.

Ironically, just as the 55 mph speed limit arguably
“lowered” fatality rates in the 1970s, evidence now suggests that the
no-speed-limit era in Montana also lowered the number of fatal accidents on the
state’s highways, striking a passionate debate between safety experts and
driving enthusiasts. Such is the stuff of great debates—and great Geek Trivia.

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The Quibble of the Week

If you uncover a questionable fact or debatable aspect of
this week’s Geek Trivia, just post it in the discussion area of the article.
Every week, yours truly will choose the best post from the assembled masses and
discuss it in the next edition of Geek Trivia.

TechRepublic member William
has no quibble with us, but this helpful reader offered an elaboration on the
July 28 edition of Geek Trivia, “A moon for all
seasons.”

“I believe in the last few years there were (by the
modern definition) two blue moons in one year. There was one in January and
another in March as there was no full moon in February.”

Indeed, William, that year was 1999, as described by this NASA article.

The Trivia Geek, also
known as Jay Garmon, is a former advertising copywriter and Web developer who’s
duped TechRepublic into underwriting his affinity for movies, sci-fi, comic
books, technology, and all things geekish or subcultural.