Every western country save one believes that maxim and has national speed limits to make the point, reducing • pollution in the bargain. Germany, where some locals guard the entitlement to drive 200-plus km/h as though it were a natural right and visitors prize a freedom denied at home, remains the exception: there is only one limit on most of the superhighways, and that is the car’s performance.
But the days of warp drive on the autobahn may be numbered. As a result of a recent court decision on liability incurred by superfast drivers, new obstacles to high speed are rising. The ruling won applause from an ever more vocal chorus of speed-limit advocates. Defenders of no-limit driving are as determined as ever but look like an increasingly isolated minority.
A long-standing proposal by the Green Party to lower superhighway speed to 100 km/h divided the public more or less evenly in the late 1980’s. “But more recently,” says pollster Jochen Hansen of the Allensbach Institute, “there has been a greater inclination to see 130 km/h as a good standard.” The latest survey, commissioned by the Environment Ministry, confirms that 72% of Germans would like to see a national speed limit, with most citing 120 km/h, also advocated by police organizations, as a reasonable possibility.
Environmentalists cite a litany of studies to show that higher speed means increased CO2, ozone-damaging N2O (nitrogen oxide) and particulate emissions as well as increased fuel consumption. However broad such support, it has not been able to dent the political influence of auto enthusiasts and carmakers. The latter, who make up one of Germany’s most powerful industries and account for 1 in every 7 jobs, argue that speed limits would deprive the likes of Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Porsche of a key competitive advantage: the right to say their cars are engineered to the driving standard of the autobahn, known the world over for uncapped speed.
Why German car buffs are so militant in their determination to drive fast remains a subject of much speculation. Some argue that the automobile is the supreme symbol of Germany’s postwar economic achievement and its obsession with quality products, others suggest that the autobahn is the only place where individuals living in one of the world’s most regulated societies can vent aggression. No-limit supporters have the government’s ear: Chancellor Helmut Kohl has sworn none will be introduced on his watch.