Arguably the greatest privilege in Montana is to drive a vehicle. At 16 or older, you can take a test and get that fancy piece of plastic with your picture on it that allows you to own a set of keys that start an engine attached to four wheels that can take you anywhere you please. To own and drive a vehicle in the state of Montana is a great jumping-off point to enjoy all of our outdoor activities. However, why does it feel like so many of us don't remember anything we learned in driver's ed?
Here are a few reminders on how to drive on Montana's roads so you don't annoy all the other drivers out there - or worse.
Go the Speed Limit.
This is a very logical and simple practice as an adult driver, right? We even have signs with big numbers displayed on them to remind us at what speed we should be driving. Even with all that, why does it seem like this is something of which people need to be reminded? When the speed limit says 55 on that big sign along the highway, let's go 55. Not 65 or 45, but 55. Now the law states that we should drive ten under the speed limit at night and in harsh weather conditions, so adjust your speed accordingly. But on a beautiful sunny day, where there is nothing but concrete or asphalt, let's do the speed that is warranted. Sound good? We wish you the best of luck for those who still want to remain above the speed limit and sincerely hope you don't slide off the road and into the ditch or get pulled over for speeding. For those that wish to stay well below the limit, news flash, it is also against the law to drive significantly under the speed limit. At best, you will have a line of very frustrated drivers behind you, which leads us perfectly to the next conundrum of driving.
Is it an ego thing? Do your mirrors not work well? Regardless of your reasons, if you have five or more vehicles behind you, you are also breaking the law. Sadly, in my 16 years of driving, I have never seen it enforced. Take the most popular and busy road in Montana, the Bozeman to Big Sky route on Highway 191, for example. Thousands of vehicles go through that canyon daily. I'd guess that everyone reading this, both locals and tourists alike, have recently been stuck behind someone or in a long line of cars. It is because someone doesn't want to use one of the dozens of pullouts on that highway and let us decent folk drive the speed limit and get on with our day. Perhaps they take a perverse pleasure in seeing us in their rearview, or perhaps they regularly forget which pedal is the gas and which the brake.
Control Your Lights.
In winter, Montana is dark for most of the hours of the day. During those times we are guided by our headlights. As many of you know, some headlights are average or relatively dull, while others blind you. To those of us who have those super ultra-bright beams, I can only say that I hope you get audited on your taxes, or something even more unpleasant.
But regardless of the light system you have on your vehicle, please be conscientious of other drivers, especially those in the oncoming lane. The high beams that you forgot to turn off are blinding, if not lobotomizing, other drivers. In some cases, it can even lead to an accident, which you could be solely responsible for. And as for you automatic high beam car owners, they don't work! Control your dang lights is what I'm trying to say here - otherwise you're blinding us to the curve of the road, the ice patch, or the friendly wildlife trying to cross the road.
We all live here for the outdoors. Whether that be hunting, fishing, skiing, running, rafting or any of the other wonderful things we get to do in this state. But many could also say we live here because of the natural surroundings that we get to enjoy while partaking in our activities, like mountains, lakes, streams, and of course wildlife. A great way to view wildlife is from a vehicle.
That being said, slow down when wildlife is present. You see the deer or bighorn sheep or elk on the side of the road, but that doesn't mean you keep your speed and go about our merry way, slow down! At any moment, something can trigger that animal to jump into the lane and cause a potentially fatal accident. Some of those white crosses on the side of the road are from accidents caused by wildlife. Wildlife has the right of way in our state - and if you disagree, good look arguing the point with them. For better or for worse, an animal doesn't recognize the difference between its natural habitat and the blacktop, and that needs to be remembered. Don't stop unless the animal is in the road. Instead, slowly go by, honking your horn if necessary to scare the animal off the road and remind oncoming drivers of the animal by flashing your high beams (in the daytime) or turning on your hazards to warn others of what is ahead.
Dirt roads might make up most of the drivable miles in Montana. Remember, we only have just over a million people in the fourth largest state by landmass, therefore most of our roads don't really need to be paved. But because a road isn't paved doesn't mean all traffic laws are thrown out the door. Most will lead to residential areas or fishing, hiking, or ski location, so that doesn't give anyone an excuse to break out their inner Baja 1000 or Dakar Rally dreams and drive that way. There are numerous inherent dangers along these roads. There are other drivers to consider, not to mention farmers with equipment. Be respectful on dirt roads. Don't be like the kids I found off-road and driving donut tracks leading to their car at the local fishing hole. I am not afraid to admit I was very tempted to leave a friendly note with lots of colorful adjectives describing how we drive and park near our fishing holes in Montana.
Nor does it extend the excuse to crack open a cold one for the cup holder either because no one is around.
There was a big and perhaps justifiable stink about what it would do to our roads when cannabis became recreationally legal in the state a few months ago. But perhaps Montana needs to be reminded of its most deadly substance: alcohol. Per capita, Montana has one of the highest DUI rates, which begs the unpleasant question of how many people aren't being caught. Yes, cannabis is under the influence as well, along with any other narcotic that Montana is known for. But alcohol might just be Montana's demon. If you notice white crosses along many of the highways in Montana, those are funded by the American Red Cross, symbols of those that have lost their lives to an accident on the highway. Do I need to tell you how many of those were likely caused by a drunk driver? Our highways are littered with cans and bottles, and its very rare that a mile goes by on a dirt road for me without the trace of some alcoholic beverage being left behind and discarded. Alcohol and driving don't mix. Please don't be selfish and risk lives because you were impaired in your ability and judgment to operate a vehicle.
The point of this article isn't to tell people they are bad drivers. We are human and, depending on the mood of our day, will forget to drive up to speed, pull over, turn off our high beams or narrowly miss an animal on the road. The point is that with the profound growth happening in our state, many people need to be reminded of all of the frustrations we can cause to one another by being on vacation or not being in a hurry.
If you want to drive slow, drive slow. Just please pull over if you see a build-up of cars in your rearview, and please pay attention to your mirrors. If you want to have your high beams on to see better at night, keep them on. But please be sure to turn them off when another car is approaching. If you want to stop and take pictures of our wildlife, take pictures. But please do so when no one is behind you or pull over if possible to get out of the way of other drivers.
Driving in Montana is one of my favorite activities as it allows me to see so many wonderful sights. But all it takes is one person to cause all of that to lurch to a halt because they don't know how to respect the laws and each other. Please be courteous to one another by following the rules of the road and everything will flow continuously. It'll be good for your blood pressure and mine.
Sean Jansen is a full-time shuttle driver and Yellowstone Tour guide. He drives anywhere between two to three times daily from Bozeman to Big Sky and has also been up and over Homestake and Lookout Pass dozens of times along with many trips up to Kalispell and east to Billings. Along with interviewing truck drivers and highway patrolmen to gather the information in this article, he is a frequent contributor to Distinctly Montana, covering a wide range of topics.