The August issue of Car & Driver, which I’ve sadly just now gotten around to reading, contained an interesting article chronicling a road trip in a Mercedes-Benz S63 AMG (a very, very fast hunk of metal for those unfamiliar with cars) on Germany’s autobahnen, from Frankfurt, down to Munich, up to Berlin, and finally back to Frankfurt. I would link to the story, but it appears to be behind a paywall. The road trip included a stretch of the A95 south of Munich which many Germans regard as the best stretch of any autobahn for serious speed, and indeed, C&D’s reporter managed a ridiculous 309 km/h (192 mph) for a few brief moments. One of the items on my life’s bucket list is to drive a car, preferably a fast one, on an autobahn, but I have to admit, I’d probably do 10-200 if I found myself in an S63 AMG doing 192.
After reading that article, it only seemed fitting that last week, I ran across a news story noting that the Montana legislature is considering a bill that would raise interstate speed limits in the Treasure State as high as 85 mph, joining Texas in that exclusive club. That got me thinking about a nearly 20-year old experiment that few likely remember today, except for a smattering of road geeks and auto enthusiasts – the brief life of the “Montanabahn”, America’s most recent, and quite possibly the last, flirtation with unrestricted highway speed limits.
So how did the Montanabahn come to be? The answer actually goes back more than 40 years. Prior to the nationwide imposition of 55 mph speed limits in 1974, Montana actually had no numerical daytime speed limit, instead going by the “basic law” which dictated that vehicles must be operated in a “reasonable and prudent” manner. (I have read that possibly Arizona and Nevada also had stretches of “reasonable and prudent” limits prior to 1974, though I have not been able to confirm this.) It should also be noted, Montana had a creative workaround to the double nickel – a $5 ticket for “unnecessary waste of a natural resource” for simple speeding, so compliance with the federal law wasn’t exactly high in the first place. When the 55 mph was killed for good in late 1995, control of all limits reverted back to the states, many of which adopted whatever rules were in place prior to 1974. In Montana, that meant a return to reasonable and prudent speed limits. And with roads and vehicles markedly safer in 1995 than 21 years earlier, that meant a field day for car enthusiasts, or anyone for that matter that enjoyed driving fast.
Despite the lack of an official daytime speed limit, it became common knowledge that the highway patrol enforced a quasi-limit of between 90 and 100 mph, though even this depended on conditions and the mood of the officer. Additionally, state roads were limited to a maximum of 55 or 65 at night, leading to a fair number of “gotcha” tickets where you’d have to argue with the officer on the definition of “night”. Of course, safety experts and the insurance industry predicted massive carnage on the roads, though this really never came to pass; traffic deaths bounced around from year to year after the speed limit repeal, but were generally only marginally higher. What eventually pooped the party was a cattle buyer from Billings who was popped for unsafe driving for doing 102 mph, and challenged the ticket in court. On the heels of numerous other speeding tickets being thrown out by sympathetic judges, the Montana Supreme Court took on the issue in December, 1998, ruling that the “reasonable and prudent” standard was unenforceable. Shortly thereafter in the spring of 1999, the Montana legislature passed a law setting numerical speed limits of 75 mph on interstates and 70 mph day/65 mph night on other roads, ending America’s modern autobahn experiment after just a little more than 3 years.
I actually had the rare privilege of driving in Montana during the brief period of open daytime speed limits, during a road trip from our home in East Texas to Vancouver and back in July, 1998. I was not quite 21 at the time – and a major league wuss to boot. During my turn to drive, I pegged the cruise at 75 and just let it go at that. My dad was a little more adventurous, keeping it around 80. The speed demon in our group? My mom. She had a blast doing 90-95 on Interstate 90 from near the Idaho border to Missoula. Yes, I am admitting on national internet that I was outraced by my mother. And sadly, I’ll probably never have the chance to make up for that lost opportunity legally. Though many years later, I did actually record my highest speed in a motor vehicle in Montana – 100 mph on a flat, deserted stretch of US 12 west of Miles City. That was fun.
Anyway, it really was too bad that the Montanabahn experiment ended prematurely. The fear was that drivers would kick things up to Ludicrous Speed (bonus points if you can name the movie reference) with any speeding ticket being practically unenforceable. But if there’s one place in America that could probably handle such speeds, Montana would be an excellent candidate. Having driven many miles of road, both interstate and otherwise, through the Treasure State over the years, I can testify that you can go miles without seeing another soul. So what if I want to write myself up for 125 on a road like that? Then again, driver training and courtesy in the States is far inferior to Germany, so perhaps Ludicrous Speed isn’t such a good idea after all (just imagine coming up on an idiot dawdling in the left lane at 55 when you’re doing 120).
So what’s the practical solution if you have a hankering to drive fast? You could just head down to Texas and try out the 85 mph SH 130 toll road east of Austin. Or, perhaps more preferably, use UPGRD’s own Award Concierge Service, book yourself an award ticket to Frankfurt or Munich, find a fast Audi, BMW, or Mercedes to rent, and find an autobahn to put the pedal to the metal. But bring some extra cash, because wasting all of those natural resources is going to leave you with a big gas bill. Or, just scrape together $500 for an old beater, enter the 24 Hours of LeMons, and drive as fast as you can in circles until the thing dies.