Where We're Going, We Don't Need Speed Limits!
Of all the many objects that could be used to define German culture, the car is one of the foremost. The automobile industry speaks to many of the most celebrated German traits, from engineering excellence to a high regard for quality. A cursory look around the average German neighbourhood will clearly show that the majority of Germans prefer German cars and looking at the German export market, it is clear that much of the world prefers them to. The car is a source of pride, in a country still at odds with overt symbols of patriotism.
So powerful is the symbol of the German car, it can also spark shame and introspection in the same token. The Volkswagen emissions scandal, which still rumbles on, was a moment for many Germans to think about how their companies are acting on the global stage and a chance to demand that they adhere to the standards expected of them. Many people who I discussed the scandal with worried what VW might have done to the German industrial reputation. Despite my pointing out that it was Germany’s engineering excellence that allowed them to cheat emissions tests, those I spoke to were unconvinced.
Alongside the car itself, is the Autobahn, often the only word of German that many non-Germans might ever learn. The Autobahn is an international symbol, the first of its kind and further made popular by the Germans electro pioneers Kraftwerk. I have lost count of the times someone has asked me what it’s like to drive on or if it really has no speed limit. The autobahns of Germany crisscross the country, delivering people and goods often at incredibly high speeds. The autobahn itself is a separate cultural symbol, possibly denoting freedom or individualism. Equally it could simply be the German pragmatics of being able to reach far away destinations in only a couple of hours.
The place of the Autobahn in German society has come under scrutiny in the last week, following the leaking of proposed plans to introduce speed limits of between 130 and 140 km/ph. This naturally created a spirited debate in the Germans press and online over whether these potential changes would have any real impact or might simply be ignored entirely. Driving really fast, it seems, is part of what it means to be German.
However, driving fast is only part of it. Germany is also a country that takes environmental concerns seriously and given the push for more environmentally friendly approaches in transport, as well as a history of automobile innovation, it is surprising that German car manufacturers haven’t found a long-term solution. Well, it’s surprising until you realise how much power the automobile lobby actually hold in Germany. They employ hundreds of thousands of people, plus the many Mittelstand companies that rely on hefty supplier contracts to keep themselves in business. These companies have the resources and the knowledge to find complex solutions to major problems, but producing a viable electronic car just isn’t one of them. What we end up with is a chicken and egg scenario where these companies complain that the infrastructure just isn’t there to support massed electronic vehicles on German roads but are loathed to invest in creating it. Therefore, there is no point mass producing a product that cannot be supported in the real world. No charging stations, no e-cars or no e-cars, because there are no charging stations.
If the argument for the environment isn’t strong enough, then perhaps an appeal to safety would be worthwhile. German drivers clearly enjoy speeding along the autobahn, but they also seem to enjoy driving as recklessly as possible. I drive roughly 500 km a week, on Landstrasse and on Autobahns and weekly I see at least three collisions. Many, if not all, follow a similar pattern; drivers sitting literal centimetres from the car in front, the car in front breaks and they collide. It happens so often, I now simply refer to it as a German Accident. German drivers, myself included, are selfish. This selfishness infects you once you get on the Autobahn, it’s basically the house rules. If you are faster, you have the right of way and everyone should move accordingly. If they don’t move, flash your lights. If that fails, drive as close as possible to the car in front. If that fails, weave to and fro between lanes in a sign of hyper aggressive impatience. If all else fails, undertake, even if that means using the hard shoulder. If you want to know what the Autobahn is like, it’s that but in various shades of Audi.
I have often advocated for a high speed license, given to those who can show they are capable of driving at high speed. This isn’t controversial, but it is clear that some people should not be driving at 170. In a perfect world, everyone would be required to resit their license every five years, but I doubt there is a political will to introduce such a measure. I think for many Germans it would be considered a check on their personal freedom. It would also require new investment in technology and policing, something again that is unlikely to ever be accepted. I can count on one finger the amount of times I’ve seen someone pulled over for dangerous driving and I know of only one speed camera in my area.
Clearly, something needs to change, but when and how is as clear as mud. Introducing speed limits will certainly save lives, but it won’t address the other issues that face the average German driver. Accidents will still occur, without adequate controls being put in place. The automobile industry also needs to change, the models of the past are no longer fit for use, but until there is a consumer attitude shift and potentially a political attitude shift, that is unlikely to change. I imagine the leaked plans for autobahn speed limits will be quietly placed in a drawer of a civil servants desk in Berlin, until a point where someone decides enough is enough.