HELENA, Mont. -- Montana lost the last vestige of a daytime highway speed limit Wednesday when the state Supreme Court declared the vague requirement to drive at "reasonable and proper" speeds unconstitutional.
The 4-3 ruling said the law fails to fairly warn motorists when they are driving fast enough to get a ticket.The decision came on the eve of the busy holiday travel period and less than two weeks before the 1999 Legislature convenes. Even before the court's ruling, there were expectations legislators will pass a new speed law.
Attorney General Joe Mazurek said he will ask the Legislature to quickly put a 75 mph limit on the interstate highways, day and night. Two-lane roads would have a 70 mph limit in daytime and a 65 mph limit at night.
The current nighttime speed limits are 65 mph on interstates and 55 mph on two-lanes, and those are not affected by the court's ruling.
Col. Craig Reap, chief of the Highway Patrol, said he is worried some motorists will take advantage of the gap in the law by pushing their speeds higher. "There will be some that think there is absolutely no control," he said.
Officers will have to rely on other laws, covering reckless and careless driving, to control the worst speeders. However, conviction under those laws requires evidence of a disregard for the safety of people or property.
Called the "basic rule," the law thrown out by the court has been on the books for more than 40 years. It was coupled with the federal speed limit during the 1970s in the interest of energy conservation but became Montana's only general speed law again after Congress repealed the federal limit in December 1995. Montana is the only state without a numeric daytime speed limit for cars and light trucks.
The law required motorists drive no faster than is reasonable and proper for conditions, such as traffic, weather, road surface, vehicle weight, condition of brakes and tires, the grade and width of a highway and so on.
The court held the law is so vague that it is unconstitutional.
"It is evident . . . that the average motorist in Montana would have no idea of the speed at which he or she could operate his or her motor vehicle on this state's highways without violating Montana's basic rule, based simply on the speed at which he or she is traveling," Justice Terry Trieweiler wrote for the majority.
The basic rule not only permits but requires the kind of "arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement" that the due process clause of the Constitution is intended to prevent, he said.
"It impermissibly delegates the basic public policy of how fast is too fast on Montana highways to policemen, judges and juries for resolution on an ad hoc and subjective basis," he wrote.
A decision dependent on factors such as sight distances and stopping distances is the job of engineers, not motorists and police, the court said.
In a dissent, Chief Justice Jean Turnage said the law is not so confusing as to be unconstitutional. It has been on the books for 43 years, and motorists have had no problem understanding its mandate during that time, he said.
Mazurek, who oversees the Highway Patrol, emphasized the law still requires people to drive in a "careful and prudent manner" for conditions, and motorists should not see the Supreme Court decision as a license to drive at breakneck speeds.