Photo courtesy of Deutsches Bundesarchiv (German Federal Archive)
We all like to think the Germans are green and rational and sensible, what with that recycling etiquette and bike lanes and hatred of anything remotely atomic. A day on the Autobahn makes you realise it's just a load of crap.
I spent half of last weekend on a tarmac Death Strip between here and Bavaria and back. Lodged between Ukrainian 18 wheelers huffing and puffing their way up hills in the slow lane and sociopathic Audi, Mercedes and BMW drivers passing me at 220 km/h in the fast lane, I motored through nine hours of construction sites, speed-traps, accidents, traffic jams, stop-and-go lunacy; tailgaters who slow down at the last minute, follow you and flash their lights 10 cm behind your rear bumper (and then shake their heads in condescending disbelief when you move your car to the right five seconds later than they think you should); somnambulist convoys of Dutch caravans, gangs of leather clad accountants on Harleys, swerving double-trailer transcontinental rigs piloted by sleepy over-worked truckers. The Autobahn is hell.
Even taking a break from the Autobahn is hell: queuing for 70 cent automated pay-toilets clogged with pensioners fumbling for change, queuing for expensive, fatty, shitty German food or Burger King. Or just relaxing in wind, noise and pollution-swept picnic areas littered by yobs and their waste.
There is no speed limit on the Autobahn. Or rather, there is no speed limit on 60 percent of the Autobahn. While that charming 1974 Kraftwerk song suggests a relaxing cruise on empty multi-laned highways, the reality today is a videogame that should come with a Rammstein soundtrack.
The lack of a speed limit is a problem. After a recent multi-car, eight-corpse pile-up between Berlin and Hamburg, 130 km/h speed limit signs were thrown up and the accident rate dropped by two-thirds. Duh. A study by the Umweltbundesamt (the Federal Environment Agency) found that imposing a speed limit of 120 km/h would reduce the carbon emissions of cars by nine percent. Duh.
Car-lobby (Germany's gun lobby) aside, driving at supersonic speeds is apparently the one freedom still granted to aggressive German males (other than brothel-visits, I suppose). Any online article on the subject of speed limits is mobbed by enraged, testosterone-gorged comment posters whose prose rivals that of the nuttier fringes of the Tea Party crowd – rants about the coming European-Ecological-Stalinist dictatorship and so on, as if there was NOTHING ON THIS PLANET more crucial than the right to pathological behaviour in a two-ton missile on wheels.
It could come down to the EU imposing a continent-wide speed limit, letting the German government off the hook... but also fulfilling the expectations of right-wing, Euro-skeptic nut-jobs.
Next time I go south, I'm taking the train.