German Speed Limits: I Can't Drive 155
There I was, flying down a German autobahn in a VW Phaeton, bumping up against the car’s electronic limiter. I glanced at the rear view mirror and moved over. A modified M5 streaked by at over 180mph. I say modified because BMW is part of a “gentleman’s agreement” hammered out in the 70’s, when Germany’s Green Party wanted to impose speed limits on de-restricted autobahns. Mercedes, BMW and Audi all agreed to limit their products’ top speed to 155mph. The idea that other countries could build automobiles capable of cresting 250kph somehow escaped everyone’s attention. As, eventually, did the entire speed limit issue.
At the time of the agreement, the majority of the automobiles plying Germany’s highways weren’t particularly clean or mind-numbingly fast. Some thirty years later, the tailpipe emissions produced by Germany’s increasingly modern automotive fleet are virtually sterile. And there’s hardly a new vehicle sold that can’t comfortably cruise well over 100mph— from diesel delivery vans to four-cylinder passenger cars. And so they do. At the same time, BMW, Mercedes and Audi all build mainstream models that could easily exceed their 155mph e-limit. And so they do, once a friendly tuner remaps their ECU. (FYI: Porsche never joined Club 155.) Clearly, German gentlemen kick ass.
Today’s German greens are also in butt kicking mode. Now that cars no longer belch significant amounts of harmful pollutants into the atmosphere, environmentalists are taking a new angle of attack: carbon dioxide. They claim that automotive CO2 emissions help reduce the Earth’s natural cooling, which causes global warming. This concern has resurrected the Green Party’s attack on automobiles in the same way that studies on the harmful effects of second hand smoke on non-smokers reignited the anti-smoking movement. Throughout the European Union (EU), member states are busy imposing legislative measures designed to restrict vehicular CO2.
The greens also have a new champion: Andreas Troge. The President of Germany’s Federal Environmental Agency (UBA) is a long time auto industry critic. For example, at a 2004 conference on environmental sustainability, Troge lambasted carmakers for using technological innovation to increase engine performance, rather than reduce fuel consumption. Last Thursday, Troge called for a 75mph speed limit on all German autobahns. He declared that the move would reduce Germany’s carbon dioxide emissions by 30 percent.
The speed limit proposal is best seen within a much wider and more vigorous debate. The EU is currently trying to “convince” Germany to radically reduce its CO2 emissions. Specifically, the EU wants the German federal government to impose tougher CO2 restrictions on its power providers. Germany’s four largest utilities have rebelled, warning that any such concession will reduce energy supplies, eliminate jobs and increase prices– which are already the highest in Europe. Whether the autobahn speed limit will be a successful part of a growing environmental movement or nothing more than a doomed sideshow remains to be seen.
I’d bet on the sideshow. No less a personage than Germany Transport Minister immediately dismissed the 75mph speed limit [almost] out of hand. “I am committed to a reduction in emissions,” Wolfgang Tiefensee proclaimed. “But a general speed limit on open stretches of road does not make sense.” Tiefensee and his supporters assert that autobahns are environmentally irrelevant; they account for just two percent of German roadways. Defenders of the status quo also maintain that derestricted autobahns help the national automobile industry develop better and safer automobiles.
While the exact correlation between allowing 100mph+ driving on long straight roads and increased automotive safety may be a bit unclear, the underlying sentiment is not. Even without considering the merits of the safety argument, the fact that such a counter-intuitive justification can be mentioned in public without widespread condemnation highlights the enormous cultural importance of Germany’s derestricted autobahns. In other words, planet, schmanet. Don’t EU be messing with our autobahns.
Remember: Germans are a people who won’t jaywalk– even if there isn’t a car anywhere within sight. They can’t run their washing machines or wash their car on a Sunday– in case the noise disturbs their neighbors. In the main, they like rules. But they also like their autobahns. And that's because the roads liberate them from stifling peer pressure and governmental dictat, giving them a rare chance to explore and experience their individuality. Not to put too fine a point on it, German drivers revel in the sheer joy of accelerative release. The derestricted autobahn network is a precious bastion against soulless conformity.
That will one day fall victim to political conformity. While environmentalism is not likely to slow down German drivers, safety legislation will. The European Union is about to harmonize drivers’ license requirements across national boundaries. It’s only a matter of time before Brussels standardizes Union-wide road safety regulations. Reigning-in Germany’s derestricted autobahns may be the last step in this process, but it will also be one of the most significant. And regrettable.
More by Robert Farago
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