Along I-90, amid the cattle ranches and wheat fields, a highway patrolman aimed his radar at the cars whizzing by and read off the numbers: 89, 82, 85, 77, 82, 74, 79.
After all, this is Montana, where the law allows any speed that is "reasonable and prudent."But when his radar flashed 93, Sgt. Clay Creek swung his patrol car across the median, trampling wild clover to give chase. He pulled over a Mazda driven by a Utah woman heading home to Salt Lake City and admonished her for traveling too fast when traffic was so heavy. When asked if she knew she was doing 93, Emma Robertson replied:
"No. I thought I was going 90. That to me seemed pretty reasonable."
Welcome to paradise . . . if you own a V-8.
From the California desert to the Wyoming mountains, I recently drove 1,400 miles across seven states to see whether motorists were celebrating with their feet six months after the repeal of the 21-year-old 55-mph national speed limit.
Nowhere can you drive so far so fast as in the West. Eight states in the region raised the limit to at least 75 on rural interstates. In Montana - the closest thing America has to the autobahn - there is no fixed daytime limit. It is the only state where you usually can zoom by an officer at 80 mph without looking back.
The national speed limit was prompted by the '70s Arab oil embargo. With long lines at the pumps a distant memory, pressure mounted to once again let each state set its own standards. When the "double-nickel" was repealed, some warned of carnage. Others argued that it wouldn't change how fast most people were driving.
But statistics about the impact are sketchy. So I hit the road to find out for myself.
One thing I quickly learned: No matter how high the limit, some people want to go higher. Police along the route said that, more than ever, many drivers are cruising at 75 to 85, and sometimes at 90 or more.
It's not that everyone is speeding. Some officers insist that they haven't noticed a dramatic increase in road villains. Based on my observations and interviews, many motorists still believe they can get away with going 5 to 10 mph above posted limits.
Neither concerns about energy conservation, gas prices or the old adage "speed kills" seem to be slowing down the lead-foots.
"I drive a Ford one-ton pickup, travel 85 mph, and I feel like a wimp because little old ladies are passing me," said Leo Hakola, a Wyoming Indian-bead salesman who sports a cowboy hat, long hair and a straggly beard.
Higher speed limits have made a big difference in remote places such as LaBarge, Wyo., where Hakola was grabbing lunch before heading back to his ranch. Now, he said, when he craves sourdough bread, he can get to Jackson Hole 100 miles away a whole lot quicker.
My trip began in Los Angeles following I-15 across the desert, where the signs say 70 mph but a billboard advertising a new Las Vegas thrill ride seems to describe the traffic on the road as well: "85 mph and legal."
From Las Vegas, I-15 wound briefly through the winding, towering walls of the Virgin River Gorge. Next came Utah, where you still could pay for gas after you filled up.
Then, in Wyoming, I picked up U.S. Highway 189, a scenic but lonely two-lane road where the radio brings you farm reports every six minutes instead of traffic updates.
From Jackson Hole, I cruised through Idaho along the western edge of Yellowstone National Park into Montana, where you find a grim roadside reminder of the dangers of careless driving: little white crosses posted at fatal accident scenes.
Once in Montana, the first car I spotted on the interstate zipped by at 90.
Speed limits are higher in the West, officials say, because there are long stretches of highway between sparsely populated cities. In Wyoming, you can drive 180 miles between towns, and see fewer cars in an hour than you see in five minutes in Los Angeles.
"We do have to travel literally a hundred miles to get organic chickens, which we buy by the case, and decent produce that is not wilted," said Hakola, the bead salesman.
"We appreciate being able to clip along at a reasonable speed. . . . The only time we have to really watch it here . . . is when the deer are wintering. At night, it is playing Russian roulette to speed because the deer or antelope or moose are going to be out on the road."
In Montana and Wyoming, about the only thing that seems to slow drivers are signs reading "game crossing." Hitting a deer at 75 mph can badly damage a car or risk death for both motorist and animal.
One thing police say they've quickly learned is that many people think speed laws are made to be stretched, if not broken.
"Since the speed limit changed to 75, I notice people expect to go 85 and not be stopped," said Ben Lang, a 20-year Utah state trooper.
"In fact, they get quite upset when you stop them and say, `Hey, don't you think 80 is a little bit fast?' "
"If you ask them how fast they would like to go," he added, "they'll tell you, `I like Montana's law.' People don't like to be told what to do."
The bottom line is that "it's social norms that drive behavior, and not speed limits," said Scott Geller, a psychology professor at Virginia Tech who has written about driving behavior. "The norm is 10 mph above the speed limit, and you're safe. When police start stopping us for going 1 mph over the speed limit, then we'll start changing that social norm."
In California, however, drivers are not traveling much faster than before, according to state Highway Patrol Commissioner D.O. "Spike" Helmick: "People were doing 80 mph when the speed limit was 55. We continue to preach that they've got to obey the limit. We're trying to do our darndest to make them obey it. And I think a lot of people are."
In fact, drivers who go 5 to 10 mph over the limit no longer can assume they won't be ticketed, officers said. And some said they are taking out their ticket books more often to drive home the point.
Utah trooper Lang said he issues warnings to drivers traveling even 1 mile over the 75 mph limit and tickets to those going 80 and above. Drivers traveling 100 or more go to jail until they pay the fine. "Before, we allowed a 10-mph tolerance to make sure we were being more than fair with the motoring public."
The reason for his change in attitude, Lang said, is that he believes accidents have risen since speed limits were raised.
But officials in several Western states said it is too early to draw conclusions. In California, deadly crashes have increased 8 percent since the 55 limit was repealed. Fatal accidents are down 10 percent in cases where the primary cause was driving too fast for the prevailing conditions. However, no breakdowns are available just for roads on which the limits were raised.
From his perch on a ramp overlooking I-15, it took Highway Patrol Officer Todd Weichers just a few minutes to spot a motorist doing 90 across the California desert.
A truck towing a house with an "oversize load" sign hit 70 as it passed a car. The truck limit remains 55 mph in California.
"One hundred-plus speeds are not hard to find out here," said Weichers, who once gave a Corvette driver a ticket for doing 125 shortly after the limit was raised. "They hurry up to go nowhere. Traffic is usually heavy enough that you may get 100 yards, then you're going to be stomping the brakes."
In the desert, officers said that even though they see drivers breaking the limit, they often don't have the time to write tickets.
A ride-along with Weichers showed why. After only about 15 minutes on the road, he had to race off to an accident 30 miles away. Although the crash was unrelated to speeding, it helps explain how motorists sometimes get away with going faster than they're allowed.
On this day, only four officers were patrolling more than 250 miles of interstate. Their priorities remain responding to accidents, helping stranded motorists and chasing those driving faster than everybody else and weaving through traffic.
Weichers said he is writing about the same number of tickets, but more for higher speeds. "Definitely, a lot more 85s." Even so, the California Highway Patrol reports that tickets are down, although the reason is uncertain.