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Germany considered changing the autobahn speed limit and people weren't happy

There was uproar, almost hysteria, over a proposed change to speed limits in Germany. Photo/Getty Images

A Government-initiated working group suggested putting a speed limit of 130km/h on motorways to lower emissions and make roads safer. Big mistake.

Forget about Brexit, the ongoing onslaught on European unity or a looming trade war with the US. There are far more important things to be talking about in Germany at the moment. Like the speed limit.

Yes, the speed limit. A few weeks ago, a Government-initiated working group commissioned to come up with ways to cut emissions published a list of good ideas. One of these was putting a speed limit of 130km/h on motorways. Besides cutting emissions, it would also be safer, they suggested. To New Zealanders, that may sound fairly obvious. To Germans, it was like being told to hand over your firstborn to Rumpelstiltskin.

There was an uproar, verging on hysteria. Analysts compared the “minimal” decrease in emissions to the potential political fallout and Germans’ God-given right to speed around in a BMW. The Federal Minister of Transport, Andreas Scheuer, told local media such a measure went “against all common sense”.

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Germany is the only country in the world to have autobahns with no speed limit. And what a fine, fine thing it is, too. You might only be cruising along at 160km/h yourself (standard speed for journalists with cheaper cars), but in your rear-view mirror you will see these magnificent creatures coming up fast, the polished epitome of German engineering – the latest Mercedes, Porsche or Audi – going at least 200km/h. For anyone who likes driving, just having those sleek machines go from an indistinct speck to silently whipping by, before disappearing into the shimmering distance, is a good time. Tourists actually come here for this experience.

Several commentators noted that taking away the autobahn from the Germans is like trying to take guns from a Texan, or whale meat from the Japanese. It’s cultural heresy. But in some ways, Scheuer was also right. Going faster on German highways doesn’t make them any more deadly than those in other countries.

In fact, New Zealand roads are probably about three times more dangerous than German ones. In 2015, New Zealand had almost 70 road-related fatalities per million people, and the statistics for 2018 will only be worse. Meanwhile, in Germany in 2015, there were 43 road-related fatalities per million people, and numbers have been falling.

Researchers have come up with many reasons for New Zealand’s poor statistics, including the state of the roads, the attitudes of local drivers, and the age and condition of vehicles. Anecdotally, this feels right. To get your licence in Germany, you have to attend months of classes, pass a complex exam, log a number of driving hours and pay about €2000 (NZ$3362) for the privilege. Approximately 60% of German highways have no speed limit, but these tend to be slick, four- to six-lane skating rinks without potholes or bends. A lot of the “open roads” that run between smaller New Zealand towns, usually those with a 100km/h speed limit, are the kind that would be ruled by a 60km/h or 80km/h limit here.

And, as any fan of interesting older cars will tell you, you rarely see a vintage beauty on German roads; they’re usually shipped off to less-moneyed nations after the warrant expires. Because the auto industry is such a mainstay of the local economy, newer vehicles with all the latest safety features are standard.

So, does all this warrant clinging to the honoured tradition of burning down the autobahn at more than 200km/h? In the end, it probably won’t matter. Putting a cap on speed limits has been tried by politicians before. Then they’re voted out.

Cathrin Schaer is editor-in-chief of Iraqi news website Niqash.org, based in Berlin.

This article was first published in the February 23, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.