Driving in Montana
Montana is known as The Treasure State thanks to its history of metal mining, but the nickname also applies to all the hidden gems waiting to be discovered as you drive across the state.
In fact, the state motto is "Oro y Plata" – which is Spanish for gold and silver. The mountains of Montana have "yielded fortunes" in these precious metals since the 1800s, but today offer up a bounty of stunning backdrops – and plenty of hairpin turns to navigate – for summer tourists and locals who drive the state's roads.
A few examples of these natural gems can be found on scenic drives in Montana, from Beartooth Highway, which takes you over Beartooth Pass at almost 11,000 miles above sea level, to Going-to-the-Sun Road, which provides views of waterfalls, scenic overlooks and iconic mountain goats.
Montana offers a combination of types of driving, says Paul Snyder, a digital marketing and PR specialist for the tech public relations firm Write2Market in Atlanta, who travels to Montana yearly for fly fishing, camping and a change of pace from city life. Across the varied terrain of that western state, you'll encounter twisty mountain passes that require you to keep a firm grip on the wheel and your eyes peeled for big animals like pronghorns, deer and elk. But you'll also find stretches of highway so straight you can simply cruise for 100 miles.
"In certain places, it's flat and straight and you can see forever," Snyder says. "Big sky country is a very real thing."
Auto Insurance Laws in Montana
Car insurance is a must in Montana, as it is in almost every other state. In fact, Montana auto insurance law requires that you carry auto liability insurance in, at minimum, the following amounts:
- $25,000 liability insurance for bodily injury or death to one person
- $50,000 liability insurance for bodily injury or death for two or more people in a single accident
- $20,000 liability insurance for property damage or destruction
Drivers who get stopped for a traffic violation or who get into a crash must produce proof that they're carrying enough auto insurance to comply with Montana requirements, and law enforcement officers use the online Montana Insurance Verification System (MTIVS) to quickly check coverage.
Of course, it's smart to consider carrying more than the minimum insurance required by state law. In fact, the state required minimum coverage might not be enough to protect you, the state's consumer guide to auto insurance warns.
That's because medical bills for a serious car wreck can easily total more than the state minimum amounts, and repairs to an expensive vehicle could ring up at a higher amount as well. If your insurance amounts aren't high enough to cover damages, you could end up on the hook to pay the rest.
And it's smart to protect yourself by carrying uninsured and underinsured motorist (UM/UIM) coverage as well. While Montana doesn't rank particularly high on the list of state uninsured driver percentages, about 10 percent of drivers there lack auto insurance. Fortunately, in Montana, insurance companies are required to provide UM/UIM insurance as part of a policy unless the driver rejects the coverage.
Car Culture in the Treasure State
Montana drivers are known for being skillful behind the wheel and kind when they encounter any of the 10 million tourists that pour into the state each year to experience the state's natural beauty or make use of the north entrance to Yellowstone National Park.
"They're super courteous," Debbie Ravenscraft, an accounts manager from Lexington, Kentucky, says of Montana drivers. She has visited Montana every summer for decades with her husband and two daughters, and she remembers one incident where another driver accidentally cut off her family's rental SUV. "They then drove right up alongside us, rolled down their window, and said, 'I'm sorry – I didn't mean to do that!'" Ravenscraft recalls.
It might be easier to stay calm behind the wheel when there's little traffic to contend with on wide open roads, which is often the case in Montana. "I couldn't tell you of a single a time we got stuck in traffic," says Ravenscraft, who loves to get off the beaten track, eat at little burger joints and stay at a reputedly haunted hotel in the middle of nowhere.
The most common vehicles on Montana's roads are big pickups like Chevy Silverado 1500s and beyond with the Z71 package, which fully equips the vehicle to go off road. "They're justified out here," says Snyder, pointing out that ranchers and outdoorsmen have a need to be able to tow anything from a boat to a horse trailer. While Snyder doesn't have that need back home in the city, he says, "I always come back to Atlanta with real truck envy."
But it's not all trucks on Montana roads. In larger cities like Billings and Bozeman, you will see more cars and import brands, says Mike Satterfield, an automotive writer who runs the site The Gentleman Racer and has taken road trips through Montana, including one in a Fiat 500.
"While many drive their trucks every day, a surprising amount of sports cars are kept for the summer driving season," he says.
Urban vs. Rural Roads
In Montana, just as in other states, driving conditions and safety vary by the type of road. Rural roads are generally more dangerous to travel than urban byways, and Montana has a large network of rural roads.
Nationally, more than half of road deaths occur on rural roads, despite the fact that more vehicle miles are traveled on urban routes. However, a stunning number of road fatalities in Montana – 89 percent – take place on rural roads.
In fact, Montana has the fifth highest rural road fatality rate in the United States, according to a 2017 study by TRIP, a national transportation research group. And the death rate on rural roads in Montana is three times higher than that of all other roads in the state.
The good news is that, though Montana does have some rural roads and bridges in need of repair, the TRIP study found that the percentage of its rural routes in poor condition is much lower than many other states. Only eight percent are in bad shape, while 15 percent are in mediocre condition.
"The roads in Montana are very good overall," Satterfield says.
Miles Driven in Montana
The number of miles driven in a state affects traffic safety. Generally, the more miles you drive the greater your chances of getting into a crash.
Unlike most other states, where people are driving more, the number of miles driven in Montana is falling slightly. Montanans drove 11,824 miles per capita in 2012, down from 11,885 in 2007.
However, Montana has an auto fatality rate of 1.81 deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled, significantly higher than the national average of 1.13 deaths. In fact, Montana has the second highest auto fatality rate in the nation, and South Carolina is the only state where it's riskier to travel the roads.
Gas Prices in the State of Silver and Gold
The price of gas can affect the amount of miles people drive at certain times. Gas prices in Montana are neither high nor low compared with the rest of the country. In November 2017, the average price of gas in Montana rang up at $2.52 per gallon, slightly under the national average gas price of $2.54 per gallon.
Montana drivers who want to offset mediocre gas prices and keep more money in their wallets should try simple gas saving tips like rolling up car windows and keeping tires properly inflated for a smoother, safer, more economical ride.
Montana's Unemployment Rate
Jobs also play a role in whether residents take to the road or stay put at home more often. As unemployment dips, driving tends to increase because people not only need to get to work, but have more disposable income for outings and vacations.
The job situation has remained steady in Montana, with a variety of industries, from tourism to nursing to technology, providing employment. As of September 2017, the Montana unemployment rate remained steady at 3.9 percent, slightly lower than the national unemployment rate of 4.2 percent that month.
In fact, Montana sits right in the middle of the pack in a ranking of unemployment rates by state, with the 23rd lowest unemployment rate in the country.
Efforts to Remediate Distracted Driving
It's a well-known fact that distracted driving causes accidents and deaths on the road. To remedy the problem, states across the nation are enacting legislation to push drivers to pay attention.
Unfortunately for Montana drivers, the state has some of the most lax distracted driving rules in the nation. As of January 2019, Montana is one of only three states that has not banned texting while driving. The other two states, Arizona and Missouri, ban texting for novice drivers. And while nearly half of all states (along with the District of Columbia) have banned the use of handheld cell phones while driving, Montana has no ban.
Due to lack of distracted driving laws statewide, many Montana cities – including Bozeman, Billings and Missoula, have enacted their own prohibition on texting while driving and using handheld devices behind the wheel.
But the state does use public service announcements on its websites to point out that distracted driving is a real danger in Montana and everywhere else. Adjusting the volume on the radio, eating, smoking, and looking at your phone all can cause distractions that take your eyes – and mind – off the road and increase your risk of crashing, the state warns.
Teen Driving Regulations
Driving can be risky for young people, and in fact teen drivers crash four times more than adults, according to the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. Unfortunately, vehicle crashes kill more than 5,600 teens annually.
Many states have made efforts to increase safety for young drivers and others on the road by offering driver licensing in stages. The state of Montana graduated driver licensing program has three progressive steps that offer new drivers more freedom as they gain practice behind the wheel. This is how the Montana system works:
- Step 1 – A teen may get a learner license in Montana at age 16 – or as early as age 14 and a half if enrolled in a state-approved driver program that offers in-person education and practice behind the wheel. To get the learner license, the teen must pass a road rules test and not have been declared by a court to be an alcoholic or habitual drug user.
- While holding a learner license, a teen must clock at least 50 hours of driving time, supervised by a parent or legal guardian, or by a licensed driver at least 18 years old who they've authorized to drive with their child. When the learner is behind the wheel, everyone in the vehicle must wear a seatbelt.
Step 2 – After holding a learner license for at least six months in a row and gaining the required practice, a teen under age 18 may apply for a first-year restricted license. To advance to this step, the teen must have remained free from alcohol or drug offenses and traffic violations in previous half year. When driving with a first-year restricted license, the teen driver must follow these Montana rules:
- No driving between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m., with some exceptions that include: emergencies, going to church or school or work, and participating in farm-related activities. Parents also may authorize a teen to drive during the restricted hours in situations they deem necessary, and a law enforcement officer may contact the parent for verification.
- For the first six months after getting the learning license, the teen may drive only one unrelated passenger under 18 unless a licensed driver 18 or older also is riding in the vehicle.
- For the second six-month period, the teen is restricted to a maximum of three unrelated passengers unless supervised by a licensed driver 18 or older.
- As punishment for violating these driving restrictions one time, a teen must perform 20 to 60 hours of community service. For subsequent violations, the teen's license gets suspended for six months. Of course, parents should closely monitor teen driving to make sure their young drivers are complying with these rules and any family driving rules they set at home.
- Step 3 – After holding the restricted license for one year or after turning 18, whichever comes first, the teen earns a full, unrestricted Montana driver license.
The State of Driving in Montana
Montana offers a varied driving experience, few traffic issues and plenty of sights to see – though Ravenscraft warns that the driver will have to keep eyes on the road at all times to navigate hairpin turns while passengers get to gawk at the mountains, waterfalls and big animals.
In fact, given the riskiness of Montana's rural roads, drivers must take every possible precaution, from buckling up to learning how to drive in high winds, in order to stay safe while traversing this beautiful state with its majestic scenery.
While summer is a popular time to visit Montana, Satterfield also loves to drive the state in the fall, which he says offers "amazing" views. "The golden grass and blue sky seem to never end," he says.