For many in this car-crazy nation, the freedom to hurtle down the famed autobahn at 190km/h or more is an inalienable right. Germany, one of the world’s top car producers, is alone among industrial countries in allowing drivers to decide for themselves how fast to race down the motorway. So a proposal last month to impose a speed limit of 120km/h has set off an election-year battle that has some people questioning a basic tenet of German identity.
The traffic-cop-like suggestion from an opposition leader challenged Germans to pick two popular obsessions – safety and sustainability – over another: a seemingly primal need to use their 500-horsepower engines to catapult themselves across their country’s gently rolling countryside.
On speed limits, “the rest of the world has been doing it for a long time”, Sigmar Gabriel, chairman of the Social Democratic party, told the Rheinische Post, adding that Germans should drive slower for safety. Traffic deaths have been dropping for years in Germany, but Gabriel said they would drop faster if there were a speed limit.
His proposal, which revived a decades-old discussion in Germany, was quickly disowned by other senior members of his party, although other Social Democrats and members of the Green party quickly lined up in support. This month, lawmakers debated the speed limit in parliament – under a dome from which one can see the rotating logo of German car giant Mercedes-Benz dominating the skyline of western Berlin. They took no action, nor is any expected before September’s parliamentary elections.
On 60% of Germany’s autobahns, drivers are free to go as fast as they wish, and German-made BMWs and Mercedeses frequently shoot down the left lane at nearly 200km/h. Elsewhere on the highways, usually in areas where traffic is heavier or near cities, there are already speed limits of roughly 95-120km/h.
Speed-limit advocates have appealed to the one thing that many Germans like almost as much as their cars – the environment – and that, in the end, may be what pushes the country to act. Driving more slowly reduces emissions and uses less petrol, and at a time when Germany is moving ahead with ambitious plans to dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions, rocket-fast Porsches strike some here as a little hypocritical.
Opinion polls show Germans split over the idea, but the issue is so sensitive that it is unlikely to be acted upon until after the September ballot. Chancellor Angela Merkel opposes speed limits, although she is never seen behind the wheel, unlike her Audi-loving predecessor, Gerhard Schroeder. Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union has a comfortable lead in the polls.
“There won’t be a general speed limit on Germany’s highways under my rule,” transportation minister Peter Ramsauer said in a statement. Ramsauer is an amateur pianist who in 2011 released a CD called Adagio im Auto, on which he and other musicians played slow classical compositions intended to calm drivers as they navigated Germany’s almost 13,000km of autobahn.
Speed limits are deeply tied to Germany’s postwar identity. Adolf Hitler built up the country’s highway network, but the Nazis instituted a nationwide speed limit of 80km/h to conserve resources during wartime. By 1953, with the country’s postwar industrial boom under way, speed limits for cars were eliminated altogether. They were later added in cities and on some stretches of highway.
In a country so devoted to safety and sustainability that it is phasing out nuclear power in large part due to fears stemming from the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident in Japan, Germany’s strict adherence to fast driving seems somewhat incongruous.
“People think they have more freedom” without the speed limits, said Ferdinand Dudenhöffer, the director of the Centre for Automotive Research at the University of Duisburg-Essen, who added that he takes his BMW up to 185km/h if the road is clear but usually drives at 120. “You could compare it a little bit with the US position of having guns.”
Dudenhöffer used to work for Porsche, where American buyers would occasionally come to pick up their cars and sample German roads, he said.
“But they would then just drive it at [95km] an hour,” he said. “They weren’t used to driving 250km per hour,” he said.
Germany’s roads, constructed to some of the strictest safety standards in the world, rank firmly in the middle of industrialised countries in terms of traffic deaths. For every billion kilometres driven on German roads, 5.6 people were killed in accidents in 2011, according to figures released this month (PDF, p14) by the International Transport Forum of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. In the United States, 6.75 people died for every billion kilometres driven, while in Britain, 3.9 people were killed.
Britain’s speed limit is around 110km. US speed limits are set by the states. The highest, 135km/h, is found in some parts of Texas. Most highways range between 100 and 120km/h, though in urban areas the limits are often lower.
German opponents of speed limits say that drivers are smart enough not to go faster than is safe.
“We have a lot of motorway sections that have bottlenecks and congestion, so people are quite happy if they can drive a little bit faster on tracks where it’s possible,” said Jürgen Berlitz, a traffic expert at ADAC, a German drivers association.
But some say that argument is absurd given that 387 people died in accidents on the autobahn last year.
“If in Germany within one year, two fully booked airliners with 400 people crashed, what a debate about air traffic security we would have,” said Stephan Kühn, traffic policy spokesman of the Green party, in a parliamentary debate last month. “Every road traffic death and injury is one too many.”