SOMEWHERE WEST OF BILLINGS, MONT.
I had been driving forever and was still 94 miles short of Billings on the endless expanse of I-90 when Smokey nailed me.
I didn't try to talk him out of the ticket. I tend to avoid arguments with Montana state troopers as a general rule, and anyway, this specific officer was, in the local vernacular, a "Kojak with a Kodak." He had a radar camera in the patrol car, and it had clocked me at between 67 and 69 mph.
With considerable trepidation, I asked how bad the fine would be and how many points I would get.
"I'm going to cite you for violation of the Energy Conservation law," the officer said politely, explaining that I was wasting gas by driving so fast. "There will be no points against your driving record, and you can pay me the fine right now if you choose."
The officer then informed me of the fine for driving 69 miles per hour in daylight in Montana. "That will be $5," he said.
I had just experienced one manifestation of the swelling anger across the country -- and particularly in the wide-open West -- with the 55-mph speed limit that was established nationally 12 years ago as a temporary response to oil shortages. It turned permanent when it was shown to save lives as well as gas, especially on congested superhighways.
The reduced speed limit is so unpopular out here that governors and legislators have mounted a sort of official civil-disobedience campaign to circumvent the federally imposed ceiling.
No state has dared to raise its speed limit above 55; doing so could cost tens of millions of dollars in federal highway grants. Instead, states are testing various ploys and strategems designed to let their drivers exceed 55 without cutting off the highway money from Washington. The official attitude toward the 55-mph limit in this region was crystalized in a conversation I had last year with Wyoming Gov. Ed Herschler (D) at the capitol in Cheyenne.
Wyoming being the kind of place where a traveler can go up and ask the governor for road directions, I asked Herschler how long it would take me to drive to Casper. "To Casper?" the governor of Wyoming replied. "It'd be over three hours if you went the speed limit."
The roots of the anti-55 fervor here are about six parts geography and four parts philosophy.
Geographically, the United States between Kansas City and California is a vast, sparsely settled expanse of mountain, desert and plain with its population clustered in widely scattered towns and cities. Distances, and thus travel time, between two cities in the same state can be huge by eastern standards.
In Montana, a motorist traveling from Browning to Bainville along U.S. Rte. 2 -- basically a straight line across the state -- will drive the distance from Washington, D.C., to Portland, Maine. Even at 70 mph, crossing Montana was a nine-hour drive, not counting fuel stops; at 55, it takes nearly 2 1/2 hours more.
Just because it made long trips longer, the lower speed limit was bound to rankle in the West. But the national speed limit also spawned philosophical objections -- particularly in a region that loves to hate Washington -- because of the perception that the rule was imposed on the states.
"There is sort of a feeling here," said Montana Gov. Ted Schwinden (D), "that of all the stupid rules coming out of Washington, 55 was the stupidest."
As Schwinden notes, states could easily flout the federally imposed limit -- but it would be costly. Under legislation passed in 1978, the federal government threatened to withhold portions of a state's federal highway grants if too many motorists were found to be exceeding 55 mph.
Over the years, western members of Congress have introduced countless bills that would permit higher speed limits -- at least on rural sections of the interstate system -- without the monetary penalty. Such legislation is pending again this year.
But Congress has been unwilling to go along in the past, and prospects remain iffy.
The federal Department of Transportation, far from expressing sympathy, has begun to crack down this year on states that don't enforce the 55 mph limit adequately. Last month Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Dole announced that she would withhold up to $5.1 million of the federal money due Arizona this year and $1.9 million due Vermont because of excessive speeding in those states. She said that Maryland was also in danger of losing up to 10 percent of its federal highway money this year, or $5.6 million.
With that kind of action in Washington, state governments have been unwilling to wage a frontal assault on the 55 limit.
There have been some feints in that direction, however. With great hoopla, Nebraska's legislature this year raised its speed limit to 70 mph -- but only after legislators were assured that Gov. Bob Kerrey (D) would veto the bill, which he promptly did.
This spring Nevada's legislature passed, and Gov. Richard Bryan (D) signed, a statute raising the state's speed limit to 70 mph in some rural regions beginning July 1. But the Nevada bill had a "self-destruct" clause saying the limit will revert to 55 mph if the federal government objects. Dole's office has sent an official letter of objection. Nevada officials now say their increased speed limit will not take effect.
The most ingenious ploy to date was a legislative proposal in Arizona to lower the state speed limit to 54 mph. That way, the lawmakers reasoned, no motorist would be cited for exceeding the "55 mph speed limit," and Arizona would not run afoul of the federal regulation. This idea died before leaving the legislature.
The most common detour around the lower speed limit in western states has been the replacement of stiff speeding fines with mild, no-point tickets for drivers caught traveling between 55 and 70 mph.
A 1984 study by the National Research Council listed 10 states -- Kentucky, Iowa and eight in the West -- that had "passed laws that appear to be specifically aimed at vitiating the 55 mph speed limit." Since then, Minnesota and Montana have adopted similar laws.
The Montana statute under which I was fined is the softest of all. It assesses a $5 "energy-wasting" fine for speeding up to 70 mph in daylight. After dark, the fine goes up to $25. No points are assessed, and a driver's insurance company is not informed.
The law was passed by a legislature sympathetic to drivers in this enormous state, where the combination of extreme distance and extreme weather can turn any trip into a day-long ordeal.
The day I was caught, for example, I was traveling from Cooke City, Mont., to Billings. That's a mere 102 miles as the eagle flies.
But the most direct route, along highway 212, was closed due to snowstorms atop Beartooth Pass. To go north to Billings, I had to drive south into Wyoming. I was stopped twice en route by bison herds crossing the road in Yellowstone National Park, and again by icy pavement after I had circled back northward into Montana.
By the time I finally reached I-90, my easy drive to Billings had already taken five hours -- and I still had 109 miles to go. The flat, featureless road seemed to stretch out forever with nary a curve or cutoff. Now the trip was becoming an epic of ennui. Mile followed boring mile. I found myself hoping for something, anything, that might break the monotony.
And then I saw the bright lights of the state police car behind me.
Special correspondent Gail Randall contributed to this report.