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Death and destruction on Montana’s roads



For years before the federal government enacted a national speed limit in 1974, Montana had no official maximum speed.  Of course you had to slow down whenever driving through towns and populated areas (both relative terms in Montana), but on the rural highways, “Reasonable and Prudent” were the magic words of the time.  But Lord knows you can’t give people a rule that openly vague and not expect them to take idiotic advantage of it.  When responsibility for speed control returned to the states in 1996, “Reasonable and Prudent” returned to Montana and speed demons from all over the country took great joy in bringing their Ferraris up north and racing them as fast as they could down those notoriously straight and endless roads.  When they got pulled over, they would simply shrug their shoulders and say, “I thought a hundred and fifty was perfectly reasonable, officer.”  It wasn’t long before Montana residents and the Supreme Court raised a stink, and a hard cap of seventy-five miles per hour was put on all major highways – seventy for rural roads.  But as I drove one of these rural roads across Montana in the spring of 2004, it became apparent that the “Reasonable and Prudent” mentality still hasn’t left the collective bloodstream. 

With less than a hundred thousand people occupying a land area just slightly smaller than the state of California, everything on the Montana plains is, shall we say, spread out, and I often had to drive fifty or more miles from one little town to the next.  The roads in between were long, straight and unchanging, often merely going and going and going until they disappeared over a horizon that seemed impossibly far away (there’s a reason this place is known as “Big Sky Country”).  Without approaching trees, buildings or undulations in the landscape, there was nothing but the dotted lines on the asphalt to give any sense of speed, and I often found my needle creeping into the eighties and even nineties.  I tried locking in cruise control but hated how painfully devoid of motion seventy-miles-per hour felt out here in the open.  I can’t even imagine how it must have been between 1974 and 1996 in Montana when it was illegal to go even a single mile-per-hour over fifty-five. 

Then again, I wonder how strictly that law was actually enforced.  I hardly saw any cops during the two days it took me to cross the state, and the ones I did see were blasting by, often approaching triple digits themselves.  Come to think of it, there weren’t even that many signs enforcing the local speed laws. 

There was generally one speed limit sign outside every no-name cluster of buildings that barely qualified as a town, and then that was it for the next hour or so until I slowed down briefly for a short jaunt through the next no-name cluster of buildings that barely qualified as a town.  No reminder signs strategically posted along the way.  None of those big unmanned radar detectors you usually see parked along interstates or in residential areas notifying motorists of their current speed.  It was like the state made a small token effort of telling you how fast you were technically allowed to go, but then they pretty much left you to your own reasonable prudence after that.

To be honest, I kind of wish they would have given a bit more guidance in the way of signs.  There were several places along these roads where it would have been far more reasonable and prudent to slow the hell down.  I’d be flying along at eighty-fi… at the posted speed limit of seventy miles-per-hour, getting hypnotized by the beautiful but monotonous landscape, when all of a sudden the road would turn sharply to the left then back again to the right without any official state warning.  Oh sure, they put a couple of those yellow arrow markers right at the curve as if to say, “Hey the road bends rather severely here, but you already knew that.”  By that point I was already careening around the hairpin turn, tires squealing, kicking up gravel and hugging a ditch that could have seriously altered the outcome of my trip.  In places like these, a sign that at least suggested I slow down to a more manageable twenty-five would have been a welcome sight.   

Rather than bothering with sign after sign full of even more rules and numbers that drivers probably wouldn’t pay attention to anyway, Montana has opted for a much more subtle (or far less subtle, depending on your point of view) reminder for all wannabe racers to watch their speed.  Crosses.  Infrequently placed crosses marking the sites of fatal car accidents.  Unlike the ornately decorated shrines and descansos you tend to see along roadways elsewhere in the country, these crosses are plain, stark and non-descript. 

It’s not grieving families, but the American Legion who puts them in place.  And they’re not there to memorialize the dead, but to warn the living.  Each cross is about four inches tall, painted white and perched at eye level atop a thin red stick.  They have no lettering and no markings.  They don’t need to.  The message is all too clear: “Hey jackass, slow down or this is all you’ll leave behind!” 

While most of the markers consisted of individual crosses, many sites were marked by several.  One particular location, indicating one hell of a pileup, had a whopping nine crosses!  Many of the crosses I saw were posted along sharp curves or next to steep drop-offs and bodies of water, making it very easy to picture what some motorist’s final seconds of life must have entailed. 

I don’t know if there is any statistical way to prove the effectiveness of the American Legion’s highway cross program, which has been in place since 1954, but it is perplexing that it still remains active in this day and age where all references to God are one-by-one being removed from every public venue.  Personally I think it would be a travesty if the ACLU, or some other rabblerousing organization, managed to convince the state to take down the crosses from its highways, and I’d be willing to bet big money that the number of accidents would rise dramatically in the year or two after the American Legion got its Cease and Desist orders.  Speed limit signs, for all their neutral authority, have a habit of blending into the landscape to the point where people pretty much ignore them unless there’s a cop around.  But when a sobering emblem of death whips by you every half-hour or so, you can’t help but glance down at your dashboard and say, “Oh crap, how fast am I going?” 

That’s what I did.  Every single time.  With every single cross.  Turns out I didn’t need a speed limit sign telling me what to do after all.  Because of the American Legion’s efforts – and barring a couple more hair-raising moments involving unexpected curves – I never found myself in danger of being put on their “To Do” list. 

Instead, I was able to enjoy the ride, the scenery and that famous Montana sky, all the while allowing my own idea of “Reasonable and Prudent” to align itself with what the original lawmakers probably had in mind. 

More by Brian at www.hey-guess-what.com, or email him directly at guess@hey-guess-what.com

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