Global Observer

Speed limit? Nein, danke!

Posting in Environment

BERLIN -- Germany's autobahn is one of the world's last speed-limitless highway systems. But could that soon change?

BERLIN -- While shooting the film Cloud Atlas in Germany in 2011, actor Tom Hanks asked the car maker Volkswagen for a camper van to take out onto the country's interstate highway system known as the Autobahn.

"No matter how fast you're driving in Germany, someone is always driving faster than you," Hanks later told David Letterman on late night television.

In a VW van, this is especially probable. The German Autobahn has long been the envy of speed demons the world over for its clean, well-maintained constitution -- and for the fact that some 60 percent of its long, flat stretches have no official speed limit.

Debates about the safety and practicality of speed-limitless highways in Germany have resurfaced since the 1970s, and a 2010 poll even suggested the public might be ready to revisit the emotionally complex issue -- which has been compared to the gun control conflict in the U.S.

But when center-left politician Sigmar Gabriel voiced his support for a blanket speed limit of 120kph (75mph) in early May, his own social democratic (SPD) party cringed.

"This conversation is about 20 years old now," the SPD's candidate for German chancellor Peer Steinbrueck told German TV station WDR. "I'm not interested in reactivating it: We have applied speed limits to most of the country's infrastructure, and I don't think it's time to reignite this discussion."

In a country where the auto industry controls some 29 percent of the manufacturing market, high-performance car makers like BMW, Audi, Volkswagen and Mercedes have come to rule more than the hearts of Germany's many motor fanatics: The industry and its lobby are undeniably influential. Mercedes has long supplied the taxi industry with the vast majority of its ivory-tinted, diesel-powered vehicles. And the proverbial "arms race" between makers of ever faster, more powerful car models has been accused of driving up the size -- and with it the environmental burden -- of the European automobile industry standard.

"A speed limit in Germany would end the worldwide 'trade war' over faster cars, while clearing the way for the entry of lighter, more efficient models into the market," German environmental mobility group VCD said in support of a blanket speed limit for Germany's highways.

But the country's influential Green Party -- long concerned about the environmental implications of speed-limitless roads -- pointed to even more immediate benefits: Some studies estimate as much as 2.3 million tons of CO2 emissions could be saved per year by capping Autobahn speeds at 120kph, it argues. According to the data, the carbon cut would amount to shutting down a mid-sized coal power plant over the same time period.

But Andreas Hölzer of Germany's largest auto club, ADAC, told SmartPlanet he sees greenhouse gases as a global problem:

"The whole of German automobile traffic accounts for 12 percent of our CO2 emissions, with only a third of that on the Autobahn, and nearly half of Autobahn traffic already adhering to speed limits. The move just wouldn't be significant enough to justify."

Statistical estimates of the drop in emissions vary, ranging anywhere from 0.3 to 9 percent with a 120kph speed cap.

The environment hasn't been speed-limit supporters' only concern: Traffic accidents at speeds above 130kmh are frequently deadly, and the argument exists that a cap would invariably reduce the number of deaths.

But Hölzer pointed to statistics, which show a disproportionately low number of traffic fatalities occur on the Autobahn.

"The most fatal accidents occur on smaller state roads with speed limits," Hölzer said. "The Autobahn accounts for about one third of road traffic in Germany, but it only makes up 10.7 percent of fatal traffic accidents and 7.3 percent of overall accidents."

A report by Auto Club Europa (ACE), however, shows that 39.7 percent of all fatal accidents on both speed-regulated and non-regulated portions of the Autobahn were caused by speeding. Nonetheless, the overall number of fatalities on the Autobahn sunk by nearly 27 percent between 2000 and 2009, with the downward trend continuing through 2012.

The public remains generally fickle on the issue: Surveys from 2007 and 2010 saw the majority of Germans supporting the implementation of a 120kph speed limit, but by early 2012, there seemed to be a change of heart.

Der Spiegel's current online poll shows 45 percent of readers in favor of a 120kmH speed limit, with 55 percent against the measure.

More:

Autobahn accidents: The Guardian's visual breakdown

PHOTOS: Wikipedia / Axel Schwenke/Flickr / cosmo flash/Flickr

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Shannon Smith

Correspondent (Berlin)

Shannon N. Smith has written for WNYC's The Takeaway and TheLocal.de. She holds a degree from the University of Texas at Austin. She is based in Berlin, Germany. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure