What to do about Montana’s record of traffic fatalities?

December 12, 2014

Montana recently launched Toward Zero Deaths, an inter-state program designed to make the “highway system free of fatalities,” as well Vision Zero, another safety program. The programs are each raising questions about high highway speed limits in the state, where 2,309 people have died in vehicle crashes over the last decade.

Montana's tradition of loose restrictions on individual behavior - including driving speed - sits uncomfortably with its rising highway fatality rates. Image from Jeremiah Roth.

Montana’s tradition of loose restrictions on individual behavior – including driving speed – sits uncomfortably with its rising highway fatality rates. Image from Jeremiah Roth.

In cities like Boston, New York, and San Francisco, Vision Zero focuses on pedestrians and cyclists — New York City, for example, has lowered its residential speed limit to 25 mph in conjunction with the program. In Montana, though, the focus within Vision Zero has been on public information campaigns, addressing drunk driving, enforcing seat belt laws, adequate emergency response, and engineering roadways to meet safety standards. The Toward Zero Deaths program is focused on highways, envisioning a “highway system free of fatalities through a sustained and even accelerated decline in transportation-related deaths and injuries.”

One of the most significant questions Montana is facing is what to do with the state’s speed limits. A handful of legislators will unveil legislation next month to raise the daytime speed limit on interstates from the current 75 mph to 80 to 85 mph. Montana is already home to some of the country’s highest speed limits. In fact, from 1995 to 1999, the state had no speed limits on interstate and rural highways; the only guideline was “reasonable and prudent.” During that period, the state averaged almost 37 fatalities yearly on interstates; overall traffic fatalities averaged 227. In the five years after the speed limit was adopted, surprisingly overall traffic fatalities fell to an average of 245 yearly.

“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. Mike Miller, who worked on the upcoming legislation. “I think that people drove, back in the 1995-1999 time frame, at speeds they were comfortable with.” These statistics — and Miller’s analysis — aside, raising the speed limit may seem counterintuitive to promoting highway safety. Montana already has one of the nation’s highest fatality rates per 100 million vehicle miles of travel, notes The Missoulian, and speed is a factor in around 35% of traffic fatalities.

(While the vague “reasonable and prudent” direction was later overturned as unconstitutional, as the National Motorists Association notes, “true highway safety can only be achieved by following sound engineering practices.” One interesting recent study, Speed Limits Set Lower than Engineering Recommendations, analyzes just that in an effort to determine the relationship between compliance, safety, and police enforcement.)

A 2012 University of Minnesota study analyzed the effectiveness of programs like Vision Zero, Towards Zero Deaths (TZD), and other similar programs in rural areas. Analyzing programs in Minnesota, Idaho, Utah and Washington, it found that  “implementing TZD programs accelerates the reduction of fatality rates. The acceleration rate varies from state to state, taking time for a new program to gain its full effect. Although each state has different degrees of temporal effect of its TZD program, the average effect is more and more apparent over time.”

Largely rural states face challenges different from those in pedestrian-dense cities. Data from the 2010 United States census reveals that while 19% of the U.S. population live in rural areas, rural road crashes account for over 50% of all traffic fatalities. TZD stops short of suggesting specific speed limits, noting instead that emergency service access must be improved to address rural crashes faster and more efficiently.

Regardless of Montana’s speed limit history or seemingly incongruous before-and-after speed limit data, one non-negotiable statistic is that high-speed crashes are more likely to be deadly: “Accidents that occur at high speeds are more often fatal, since high-velocity objects collide with greater force,” notes Slate. Weighing — and researching — the risks and benefits of raising the limit in the state is key to crafting a safer space on the road. As The Missoulian editorializes, “Lawmakers should give top consideration to the fact that Montana’s vehicle fatality rate is already too high… if the price of saving a little time on Montana’s roads is even one life, that’s too high a price – and too high a speed limit.”

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Category: Legislation, Transportation

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