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Montana: No Speed Limit Safety Paradox

By Chad Dornsife, 5/10/2001
National Motorists Association, Waunakee Wisconsin

This is an obvious call to action. Something must be done. We need more laws, more money for enforcement and more citations written - Speed Kills!

Not so fast says a follow up study just completed by National Motorists Association. The study shows the safest period on Montana’s Interstate highways was when there were no daytime speed limits or enforceable speed laws.

The doubling of fatal accidents occurred after Montana implemented its new safety program; complete with federal funding, artificially low speed limits and full enforcement.

Yes we all want safer highways, but who are the players and whom can we believe? How can fatal accidents double after we put in place our government’s (NHTSA) most revered highway safety strategy? What is going on here? Something doesn’t add up. Is this an anomaly or is it expected?

The NMA has long held that true highway safety can only be achieved by following sound engineering practices, not conjecture, and we wanted to find out what really happened in Montana. In this study we examined the 2 classifications of highway where the effects of no limits and full enforcement could be definitively compared. These Montana findings add weight to 70 plus years of consistent engineering findings to the same effect.

From an engineering perspective the evidence strongly suggests that some of these lives lost were a direct result of Montana’s politicians succumbing to unfounded conjecture. They passed a politically correct law at a time when the state’s fatal accidents were at a modern low and its roads were never safer. Why are they responsible, they simply ignored (US title 23, federal law) federal safety requirements that sound engineering standards and practices be followed – resulting in non–complying signs being posted, adoption of unsafe practices that are known to increase accident rates, which most certainly includes hazards remaining unmarked or with insufficient warning.

There are four primary contributors to this confusion: In the last 30 years we have institutionalized a billion dollar enforcement industry... a press that transitioned from investigative into a business... the ever ominous politicians looking to get reelected or establishing a legacy... and the ignored traffic safety engineering community who has relentlessly documented cause and effect safety strategies, requires peer review and verification before a standard is adopted as the most effective solution, a group which knows the best policy is one that always encompasses observed human nature.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) personifies the traffic enforcement industry, because this industry is its primary constituent. In its role, it first created “Speed Kills”, next was “Road Rage” and then the “Aggressive Driving” slogans and supporting propaganda campaigns to scare the public into growing the enforcement industry (revenues, equipment, staffing). Its press releases as a matter of practice grossly misrepresent data (invent a crisis, then the need to intervene) – engineering findings never support its conclusions. At what cost? Fatality rates in 2000 increased again, sound engineering practices have been undermined, road blocks for checking your papers are now legal and common, vehicle confiscation for minor infractions now accepted practice, mothers are thrown into jail for not wearing seat belts – and a public gladly sacrificing its liberty to false safety idols.

The press (a business hungry for content) regurgitated every piece of propaganda that NHTSA could produce. Nobody can be against traffic safety and here is an agency whose very name says they are our protectors. Consequently the press became a conduit of unverified claims supporting this agency’s self interest. Marketing 101, tell someone for their entire life something is true - it becomes their truth. Except for a small group of traffic engineers and researchers, these manufactured urban myths became the nation’s truth, encompassing its politicians, reporters and citizens.

As for politicians, just ask which way is the wind blowing - sounds good to them. In Montana there was law and order Governor Mark Racicot, standing by the Attorneys General, the Chief of the Highway Patrol and the wishes of the law enforcement community. The state agencies followed the governor’s wishes and testified in support of the new law (when their data didn’t support it) – the norm in today’s world of agency testimony in front of legislative committees.

Now to the silenced engineers and researchers. Federal law (Title 23) says fact–based sound engineering practices are to take precedence over conjecture. The problem, no one is willing to enforce it – including the FHWA. These professionals work for political entities, and at the end of the day they are silenced from practicing their profession because they have families to feed and they need a job.

Here is what the Montana data shows. (chart below) After all the politically correct safety programs were in place and fully operational, complete with federal safety funds, more laws and citations being issued. Here are the results.

1. After the new Speed Limits were established, interstates fatal accidents went up 111%. From a modern low of 27 with no daytime limits, to a new high of 56 fatal accidents with speed limits.

2. On interstates and federal primary highways combined, Montana went from a modern low of 101 with no daytime limits, to a new high of 143 fatal accidents with speed limits.

3. After a 6 year downward trend in the percentage of multiple vehicle accidents on its 2 lane primary highways, multiple vehicle accident rates increased again.

4. With the expectation of higher speed when there was no daytime limit, Montana’s seat belt usage was well above the national average on its highways without a primary law, lane and road courtesy increased, speeds remained relatively stable and fatal accidents dropped to a modern low. After the new limits, fatal accidents climbed to a modern high on these classifications of highway, road courtesy decreased and flow conflict accidents rose again.

All the important observations made in original research paper remain very germane in regards to this doubling of fatal accidents on Montana’s highways. (February 2000, Montana: No Speed Limit Safety Paradox) The following excerpts tell the story.

“Research scientists and engineers have long known that there are sometimes unexpected results from changes in public policies. Ironically, the paradox of no posted speed limits and low fatal accidents rates is no surprise to the traffic safety engineering community. “

For years, motorists’ advocates have used engineering-based facts against artificially low speed limits. They have claimed that by raising speed limits to reasonable levels, accident and fatality rates will actually be reduced. This seemingly wild assertion has been documented by the traffic engineering profession for 50 plus years. This fact–based position has again been proven to be true by the repeal of the National Speed Limit. The nation has recorded the lowest highway fatality rate since such records have been kept.

What about the extreme of No Speed Limits on 4 lane Interstate and rural federal–aid primary two lane highways? These same fact–based engineers point to the German Autobahn, where with no speed limits, authorities are consistently reporting lower fatality rates than comparable US highways.

For the last 5 months of no daytime limits in Montana, the period after its Supreme Court had ruled that the Reasonable and Prudent law was unconstitutional, reported fatal accident rate declined to a record low. Fixed speed limits were reinstated on Memorial Day weekend 1999. Since then, fatal accidents have begun to rise again.

This begs the question, do people change the way they drive when there is no speed limit? The evidence suggests the answer is yes. The measured vehicle speeds only changed a few miles per hour as predicted – comparable to data collected from other western states. What changed? The two most obvious changes were improved lane courtesy and increased seat belt use. Did other driving habits and patterns change as well?

The lower–than–US fatality rates on the German Autobahn (where flow management is the primary safety strategy), and now Montana's experience, would indicate that using speed limits and speed enforcement as the cornerstone of US highway safety policy is a major mistake. It is time to accept the fact that increases in traffic speeds are the natural by product of advancing technology. People do, in fact, act in a reasonable and responsible manner without constant government intervention.

The Montana experience solidifies the long held traffic engineering axioms, “people don't automatically drive faster when the speed limit is raised, speed limit signs will not automatically decrease accident rates nor increase safety, and highways with posted speed limits are not necessarily safer than highways without posted limits.”

The study on the effects of no daytime speed limits in Montana is clear. Traffic safety, if anything, actually improved without posted limits or massive enforcement efforts. Highway safety wasn't compromised nor can the lowest fatality rates recorded in modern times be ignored. Something happened, it was positive, and it needs further research to analyze what worked and why.

This doubling of the fatal accidents in Montana is a real life example to the potential catastrophic consequences of passing politically correct laws. Safety can only be achieved when sound engineering practices are allowed to overrule unfounded political conjecture. The sooner we as nation follow these precepts as adopted in the Highway Safety Act of 1966, our roads will be as safe as they reasonably can be while protecting your rights too.


The Findings

This study covered 7 years, 4 of which had no daytime limits. The chart covers the period after motorists adjusted to no limits through the last 19 months when the new full time speed enforcement and safety campaign was in place. The actual numbers provided by the Montana DOT tell the story.

Montana Fatal Accident Data

 

  No Daytime Limits - Reasonable and Prudent Enforced

  No Daytime Limits - Reasonable and Prudent Unenforceable

  Daytime Speed Limits - Full Enforcement


Interstates: 4 Lane Divided

1998: No Daytime Speed Limits
Jan Feb Mar Apr May June July Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec
4 0 2 4 5 1 5 4 0 1 3 2

Jan - June Average Month: 2.7

July - Dec Average Month: 2.5


1999: No Daytime Speed Limits

75 Maximum Speed Limit
Jan Feb Mar Apr May June July Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec
2 2 4 2 1 0 2 7 4 1 1 4

Jan - May Average Month: 2.2

June - Dec Average Month: 2.7


2000: 75 Maximum Speed Limit
Jan Feb Mar Apr May June July Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec
4 2 8 5 2 7 7 3 4 1 6 7

Jan - May Average Month: 4.7

June - Dec Average Month: 4.7


Last 12 months/No Daytime Limits

2000: W/Speed Limits Reinstated
27 Fatals / Modern Low 56 Fatals / Modern High

Rural Federal Aid Primary Highways: 2 Lane*

1998: No Daytime Speed Limits
Jan Feb Mar Apr May June July Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec
9 1 7 6 5 6 8 11 9 9 3 8

Jan - June Average Month: 5.7

July - Dec Average Month: 8.0


1999: No Daytime Speed Limits

65/70 Maximum Speed Limit
Jan Feb Mar Apr May June July Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec
3 5 5 2 5 8 5 5 12 6 10 6

Jan - May Average Month: 4.0

June - Dec Average Month: 7.4


2000: 65/70 Maximum Speed Limit
Jan Feb Mar Apr May June July Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec
2 6 6 4 4 10 10 13 14 6 5 7

Jan - May Average Month: 5.3

June - Dec Average Month: 9.2


Last 12 months/No Daytime Limits

2000: W/Speed Limits Reinstated
74 Fatals / Average 87 Fatals / 2nd Highest

Fatal accident data charted for the 7 years of the study. No daytime limits were in place from the end of ’95 through mid ’99. 1994 is representative of a low point for the previous decade.


Fatal Accidents Summary: Source Montana DOT

  Interstate Primary Total

'94

41

70

111

'95

33

72

105

'96

39

75

114

'97

51

91

140

'98

31

82

113

'99

30

72

102

Last 12 Months
W/No Daytime Limits

27

74

101 Low

'00
After Speed Limits

56

87

143 High


Note: The last 12 month period of no daytime speed limits ended in May of 1999 with the lowest number of fatal accidents despite an estimated 12–18% increase in traffic volumes during this 6 year period. In 2000, the USDOT recorded the first modern reduction in miles traveled and Montana with its first true speed limits recorded its highest number of fatal accidents in modern time on its interstates.

Taking a different approach to examining the effects of no posted limits, the author decided to take a look at multiple vehicle accidents to see if there were any changes or trends.


Montana: percentage of daytime accidents involving multiple vehicles

 

Interstate

Primary

'94

24%

53%

'95

26%

53%

'96

29%

52%

'97

25%

50%

'98

22%

49%

'99

26%

48%

'00

26%

50%

(Fall 95 – mid 99 no daytime speed limits)


On these classifications of highway, the no daytime speed limit appears to have reduced the multiple vehicle accident rate on Montana's 2 lane Primary Highways.

This information was requested because the author’s personal observations indicated that a culture had developed of slower traffic yielding the left lane by keeping right and/or moving closer to the shoulder to allow safe overtaking. Instead of increasing accidents, with the expectation of higher speeds, there should be fewer multiple vehicle accident because of better lane courtesy. It appears to be the case, as indicated by the reduction in the percentage of multiple vehicle accidents on the rural primary 2 lane highways. As the chart shows for 2000, with the new speed limits the percentage of multiple vehicle accidents have increased again.

Summary of the effects of no daytime speed limits:

1. Fatal accident rates on these highways reached an all time low in modern times.

2. On 2 lane highways with no posted limits the frequency of multiple vehicle accidents dropped 5 percent.

3. Seat belt usage is up to 91% percent, with only a secondary enforcement law.

4. Posted limits and their enforcement, had either no or a negative effect on traffic safety.

5. As predicted by the engineering models, traffic speeds did not significantly change and remained consistent with other western states with like conditions.

6. The people of Montana and its visitors continued to drive at speeds they were comfortable with, which were often speeds lower than their counter parts on high density urban freeways* with low posted limits.

7. The theory behind posting speed limits on these classifications of highway is to reduce conflicts in traffic flow (caused by speed differential), thereby reducing accidents. On the two lane highways flow conflict accidents (multiple vehicle) decreased when the limits were removed. When added to the Autobahn results and the no change found on Montana’s Interstates, this thesis needs to be rethought because the field data on highways without posted limits doesn’t support it. With the expectation of higher speed differentials, multiple vehicle accident rates declined even when the actual speeds did not change significantly. This suggests the changes are the result of positive motorists behavior (courtesy and due caution).

8. In traffic engineering findings the vehicles traveling faster than average have the lowest accident rates, yet they are the primary targets of speed enforcement. To this we can now add, with speed limits there was no positive correlation between speed enforcement and accident rates on rural free flowing highways, if anything, the highways became less safe.

MONTANA PARADOX: Is that the desired safety effect from posting speed limits was achieved by removing them.

Followup Footnote: At the end of 2001, a year after Montana implemented its new NHTSA backed and sponsored enforcement program, fatalities increased significantly. Now another year of data is in (2002), Montana just recorded a 20 year high in fatal accidents.

We have two choices, we can follow those policies that result in a net reduction in fatalities, or those that have been documented for over 70 years to actually increase fatalities. After decades of NHTSA propagated myths, we as a nation have chosen the later.

Supporting an industry, according to the FHWA, that issues over 90 percent of its speed citations for "speed limits which are set artificially low... misallocate resources, apprehending and prosecuting motorists driving at safe speeds".


Credits: Special thanks to Jack Williams, Research & Evaluation Bureau Chief, Traffic Safety Bureau, Montana Department of Transportation, for his assistance in collecting the highway accident data.

Contact Information,
Chad Dornsife
chad@hwysafety.com
775.721.2423 cell
800.708.5723 voice mail/fax

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