In an effort to hit emission reduction targets established by the Paris accord, a government-enlisted commission in Germany has suggested the unthinkable.
The idea — and, for now, it's just that, an idea — revolves around something so preposterous, so implausible that it has been roundly rejected before even being formally introduced. And that idea, proposed in a leaked draft of a document prepared by the National Platform on the Future of Mobility, is this: universal speed limits on the Autobahn.
While enforced speed restrictions on a national highway system is a fact of life not just across the EU but pretty much everywhere, the limit-free nature of the German Bundesautobahn (Federal Motorway) is a source of national pride. In the land of Audi, BMW, Volkswagen, Porsche and Mercedes-Benz, a highway network sans speed limits is both a cultural identifier and a symbol of freedom.
To that end, Transport Minister Andreas Scheuer has called the very notion of a blanket speed limit across all 8,000-some miles of the Autobahn as something that "goes against all common sense."
For non-Germans, of course, this senseless idea isn't so senseless at all. Why wouldn't a major national highway network have speed limits?
A cultural need for speed
As one of the longest and densest controlled-access highways — or, simply, a freeway — in the world, just over half of the Autobahn network has a non-enforced advisory speed limit of 130 km/h (81 mph), which basically means that motorists can go faster — sometimes much faster — if they please. And it's been this way since 1952, when universal speed limits along most sections of Germany's revered highway system were abolished.
(The longest section of the Autobahn without speed restrictions is along the A 24, a 147-mile route in the north of the country linking Hamburg and Berlin. Roughly 65 percent of it can be driven at speeds exceeding 81 mph.)
For the uninitiated, navigating portions of the Autobahn with 'anything goes' speed rules can be daunting. (Photo: dmytrok/Flickr)
According to 2008 estimates, 15 percent of the Autobahn does have temporary speed limits that kick in during adverse weather. What's more, 33 percent of the Autobahn has permanent, enforced speed limits although these stretches are mostly limited to heavily congested areas, dense urban cores and construction zones. There are also speed limits for certain types of vehicles including buses (50 mph), passenger vehicles and trucks that are towing trailers (50 mph) and buses with standing passengers (37 mph.)
Per Deutsche Welle, the proposed blanket speed limit recommended by the commission is 130 km/h — the same as the advised speed in speed restriction-free sections of the Autobahn. That's still pretty fast!
The initial reaction to the idea of enforcing speed limits on particularly zippy sections of the Autobahn that have been routinely terrifying non-German motorists tourists for decades is discouraging from an environmental prospective. But it's also not that surprising in a nation in which the '70s-era slogan "freie Fahrt für freie Bürger" ("free driving for free citizens") still holds significant cultural weight.
Scheuer, a member of the country's center-right CSU party, even cancelled a planned working meeting with the commission to review preliminary ideas after the draft was leaked to the media. (It appears his mind is already made up.) A finalized version of the report is due to be discussed at the end of March.
As for the panel itself, it was quick to downplay the idea that any recommendations are set in stone.
Explains Deutsche Welle:
Commission members complained that the publication of their working paper misrepresented an early phase of their work and had been made public in a sensationalized manner lacking proper context.
Aware of the unpopularity of such suggestions, the commission noted: 'Not every instrument and every measure will be accepted. It will take political deftness, diplomatic skill and a willingness to compromise to achieve the climate change goals.'
The Federal Ministry of Transport was quick to point out that the report represented 'initial brainstorming' and that none of the measures had been 'discussed, agreed to, or passed.'
Can car-crazy Germany put the brakes on emissions?
The fact of the matter is that Germany, a country with one hell of an automobile lobby, must dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emission levels to meet EU targets — and this is particularly true of the German transport sector.
Per Federal Statistical Office figures shared by Deutsche Welle, automobiles across the country emitted 115 million tons of carbon dioxide in 2017 — a 6.4 increase from 2010. And this trend shows no sign of reversing course.
Enforcing speed limits along the Autobahn isn't the only potential method of limiting rising transport-related emissions as outlined in the commission's leaked preliminary report. Also mentioned — and also just as vexing for some German politicians — was a fuel tax hike beginning in 2023 as well as well as placing quotas on electric vehicles and eliminating tax breaks for diesel cars. These maneuvers would, among other things, encourage public transit use, curb emissions and promote cycling and other modes of alternative transportation.
Controversy over speed limits on Germany's (in)famously speed-tolerant freeways have drawn comparisons to gun control debate in the U.S. (Photo: Ansgar Koreng/Flickr)
Although many lawmakers were dismissive of the idea for a universal speed limit on the Autobahn, Cem Ozdemir of the Green Party called it "an act of reason."
And Ozdemir is far from alone. The call to impose a standard speed limit across the Autobahn network has been kicking around for years, enjoying particular popularity amongst environmental groups and safety advocates. In a 2017 op-ed published in Bavarian newspaper Suddeutsche Zeitung, writer Thomas Hummel notes that a speed limit "benefits a majority of the population:"
At lower speeds, cars emit less CO2. In addition, this would also be an incentive for the industry to build smaller and lighter cars, which in turn would save carbon dioxide in the production process.
Unfortunately, German carmakers earn most of their money with large, heavy, powerful cars. That brings in profits, returns to the shareholders, bonuses for the board. And the possibility of immediately threatening to have to cut jobs at the slightest prospect of unpopular proposals. For companies, speeding on the highways is invaluable publicity, admired all over the world. Except for Germany, there is hardly a country without a speed limit on all types of roads. Germans know this too from trips to neighboring countries. But the question is: are Austrians, Swiss, French, Italians and everyone else imprisoned in an ideological culture of prohibition?
The Associated Press notes that proponents of enacting a universal speed limit believe that the restrictions — in addition to reducing fuel consumption and slashing emissions — could also help to drive down the number of deadly accidents on the Autobahn, particularly fatalities that occur on stretches of freeway in which speed limits are not enforced. (The percentage of fatalities is higher on speed limit-free sections of the Autobahn compared to sections with permanent speed restrictions.) But similar to freeway systems in other countries, the overall annual number of traffic fatalities on the Autobahn is far lower than the number of lives lost to accidents on rural roadways.
And while a freeway with no speed limits may be nightmare material to many Americans, the Autobahn is statistically safer than U.S. interstates where there are strictly enforced speed limits. According to 2013 data, in Germany there were 4.3 annual traffic fatalities per 100,000 inhabitants while that figure in the U.S. is more than double at 10.9 deaths per year.
The reason? Despite a cultural need for speed, Germans are, by and large, skilled and dedicated motorists who observe the rules of the road. Tailgating is taboo and the left lane is only for passing, no exceptions. Obtaining a driver's license is a rigorous, drawn-out and somewhat costly process. And given its status as Germany's concrete-lined pride and joy, road maintenance and upkeep along the Autobahn is nothing short of immaculate, which ultimately makes it a safer place to drive at 100 miles an hour — or, in an ideal world, a sensible 75 or 80.