Man Without Qualities

Sunday, November 19, 2006

The Reasonable As The Irrationally Vague And Now The Urgently Utopian?

In the years before 1974's 55 mph National Maximum Speed Limit and three years after its 1995 repeal, Montana had a non-numeric "reasonable and prudent" speed limit during the day on most rural roads. Montana Code Annotated (MCA) Section 61-8-303 said "A person . . . shall drive the vehicle . . . at a rate of speed no greater than is reasonable and proper under the conditions existing at the point of operation . . . so as not to unduly or unreasonably endanger the life, limb, property, or other rights of a person entitled to the use of the street or highway." Montana law also provided a few numeric limits in some narrowly defined circumstances.

The phrase "reasonable and prudent" is found in the language of most state speed laws. Never the less, in 1998 the Montana Supreme Court held that the law requiring drivers to drive at a non-numerical "reasonable and proper" speed "is so vague that it violates the Due Process Clause ... of the Montana Constitution".

But some European traffic theorists have essentially the opposite idea:

European traffic planners are dreaming of streets free of rules and directives. They want drivers and pedestrians to interact in a free and humane way, as brethren -- by means of friendly gestures, nods of the head and eye contact, without the harassment of prohibitions, restrictions and warning signs. ....

The utopia has already become a reality in Makkinga, in the Dutch province of Western Frisia. A sign by the entrance to the small town (population 1,000) reads "Verkeersbordvrij" -- "free of traffic signs." Cars bumble unhurriedly over precision-trimmed granite cobblestones. Stop signs and direction signs are nowhere to be seen. There are neither parking meters nor stopping restrictions. There aren't even any lines painted on the streets. .... "Unsafe is safe" was the motto of a conference where proponents of the new roadside philosophy met in Frankfurt in mid-October.
Of course, many German Autobahns have no specific speed limits.

Are we reaching a point where a lot of European driving could be less regulated than that of Montana? Is it really possible that the Montana Supreme Court that held a simple, well-established "reasonable and proper" standard of speed was "irrationally vague" could tolerate the urban free-for-all contemplated by European traffic planners as safer than the alternative of written specifics?

In short, are we really reaching a point where much European driving, both inside and outside of cities, could be conducted under a system deemed unconstitutionally and irrationally vague by American courts? What would that say about American judicial arrogance?

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