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Geek Trivia: The fast and the curious

What U.S. state featured highways with no speed limits for several years during the 1990s?

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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 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.

About Jay Garmon

Jay Garmon has a vast and terrifying knowledge of all things obscure, obtuse, and irrelevant. One day, he hopes to write science fiction, but for now he'll settle for something stranger — amusing and abusing IT pros. Read his full profile. You can a...

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