It has been described as being as sacred to the Germans as sumo wrestling is to the Japanese or saunas to the Swedish. But the tradition of having no speed limit on Germany’s autobahns is under threat.
The Social Democrats, junior partners in the grand coalition of Chancellor Angela Merkel, say the introduction of a speed limit would reduce both CO2 emissions and the accident rate.
More than half of Germany’s 7,600-mile autobahn network has no speed limit, and environmentalists have welcomed the idea of imposing a top speed of 130 kilometers per hour (80mph). But the powerful car lobby is vehemently opposed to the plan.
The SPD used environmental experts to argue that a limit of 120 or 130kph could reduce CO2 emissions by 9% or more. “A blanket limit of 130kph would be a quick and unbureaucratic way in which to increase climate protection,” said the SPD chairman, Kurt Beck.
But Bernd Osterloh, head of the works committee of Volkswagen, Europe’s biggest car maker, dismissed the idea, saying that cars had already become much more environmentally friendly. “It’s a dreamlike idea,” he told Bild newspaper. “For one thing speed limits hardly reduce a car’s already very low CO2 emissions, so it’s silly for politicians to keep clubbing the automobile industry between the legs with this.”
Critics of the SPD proposal say it would damage the car industry, arguing that the production of high-speed vehicles has helped to drive up crash safety standards. Interfering with this, they say, would have a particularly detrimental effect on trade with the United States.
The lack of blanket speed limits has long been a treasured freedom in a country normally bound by rules. It even attracts a considerable amount of tourism – British car drivers are known to drive to Germany for impromptu rallies at weekends, while Chinese tourists often visit for organized autobahn holidays.
Elsewhere, only the Isle of Man, Nepal, and the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh are limit-free, although poor road quality often acts as a restriction in itself.
Road safety experts say it is almost certain that lower speeds would mean lower accident rates. During the 1973 oil crisis, when a limit of 100kph was introduced, the number of accidents and injuries on the autobahns was reduced by half.
Last year 600 people died on the autobahns, while 9,000 were badly injured. Two-thirds of those accidents occurred on stretches with no speed limit.
But Ms Merkel, who is driven around in an Audi A8, has refused to join the debate, saying that under her leadership the speed limit issue is not open for discussion.
“It will not happen under me,” she said in a television interview, arguing that traffic jams could be just as environmentally damaging as fast driving.
World speed limits
France, Italy, Austria 130kph (80mph)
Spain 120kph (75mph)
Cyprus 100kph (62mph)
UK 112kph (70mph)
US 90-110kph (55-68mph)
Norway 90-100kph (55-62mph)
Isle of Man None
· Source: EUROPA, Traveling in Europe (2007)