Today, the 21-year reign of the 55-mph speed limit seems like ancient history. On July 1, Idaho and Wyoming adopted an 80-mph maximum on some highways. Along with Utah, these Western neighbors joined Texas, which had set speeds at 80 mph in parts of the state starting in 2006. And that’s not even the nation’s highest speed limit. That would be 85 mph on Texas State Highway 130, adopted in October 2012. But don’t mistake this trend as the makings of an unrestricted-speed movement in the halls of American legislature.
Prior to the de facto national speed limit taking effect in 1974, some states’ maximums had been higher, resembling the limits of today and more in line with the high speeds for which the interstate system was engineered. The Kansas Turnpike had an 80-mph speed limit way back in the 1950s, when few cars could even cruise comfortably at that speed. In the wake of the energy crisis, President Nixon first proposed limiting speeds to 50 mph, rather than the 55-mph limit later adopted. At that time, his home state of California had a 70-mph speed limit. In Wyoming it was 75. Neither Nevada nor Montana had daytime limits before the national 55, though you could still be ticketed there for driving faster than what was “reasonable and proper under the conditions, ” to quote the Montana law.
When President Clinton repealed the 55-mph limit in 1995, Montana reverted to this statute and thus began our only modern experiment with unrestricted highways. It ended badly in Big Sky country, with the reimposition of a numerical limit—but not because of an uptick in fatalities or public outcry. Rather, the Montana-bahn was derailed by a single litigant, whose refusal to just suck it up and pay his speeding tickets ruined it for us all. The lawsuit State of Montana v. Rudy Stanko resulted in the Montana Supreme Court eventually invalidating the state’s nonnumerical speed statute. Justice was served to a nation more in love with litigation than driving.