Last summer, a Czech millionaire drove his car onto the Autobahn between Berlin and Hanover. The trip was posted on Youtube. At the beginning, he is parked on the hard shoulder. In two and a half minutes, he accelerates to 417 kilometres per hour (for Americans or Brits, that’s 259 mph).
This was during the day, when numerous other cars were also on the road. Had there been an obstacle ahead of him, the driver would have needed more than 600 metres to brake — and he obviously cannot see that far. The fact that no one was killed was down to pure luck.
Yet this potentially deadly joy ride was (more or less) legal. About 70 percent of the Autobahn has no Tempolimit. Germany is the only wealthy country in the world without a general speed limit.
A drunk at a bar might tell you that German highways are particularly safe. But you don’t need to know much about physics to understand that a car moving twice as fast is going to have a lot more kinetic energy. Statistics show that sections of the Autobahn without speed limits have 75 percent more deaths and serious injuries than those with them. Each year, about 4,000 people are seriously injured on German highways.
West Germany only introduced a speed limit of 50 km/h (31mph) in cities in 1957. The opposition was as fierce then as it is now — an automobile lobbyist was quoted: “the progress of civilisation demands sacrifices.” In other words; a few thousand children might have to die so German industry can build faster cars! Besides, they said, the problem wasn’t about rules — it was about “mentality” and “discipline” of drivers.
It goes without saying that with the new speed limit, traffic deaths in cities dropped immediately. It took until 1972 for a limit of 100 km/h to be introduced on rural roads, with similar results. Now, 50 years later, we are still waiting for the next step.
Today, a full 71 percent of people in Germany are in favour of speed limits. Two of the three parties in the new federal government are in favour of a speed limit of 130 km/h. But the tiny neoliberal party, the FDP, blocked the proposal, saying it would be “purely symbolic.” The Greens, as is their wont, capitulated.
Let’s call this insanity what it is: a subsidy we’re all paying to the German automobile industry so that they can sell needlessly fast cars.
There is, despite what you might hear, a lot of data about this. One study that measured the speed of 1.2 billion cars found that a full 77 percent were going below 130 km/h when driving on freeways without a limit. Only 2 percent of drivers were making use of their right to travel above 160. If this is “freedom,” it is a freedom enjoyed by very few.
A speed limit would save up to 140 lives per year. But cars kill in many ways. A speed limit could also reduce CO₂ emissions by up to two million tons per year. In fact, the climate effect is actually much larger. Cars that are designed to go 300 km/h need bigger engines and braking systems — they are much heavier, so they emit more carbon dioxide even when they are stuck in traffic.
Let’s call this insanity what it is: a subsidy that we are all paying to the German automobile industry so that they can sell needlessly fast cars. There is a tiny minority of people in Germany who like to go “vroom vroom.” For them, their incredibly dangerous behaviour is the definition of “freedom.” Since their hobby aligns with the interest of Germany’s most powerful industry, they can hold the rest of us hostage.
Germans are often baffled at how Americans can put up with school shootings and other byproducts of the “freedom” of individuals to own an arsenal of war weapons. But Germany seems similarly paralysed when it comes to passing public health measures. The “freedom” of a narcissistic minority, with wealth and the worst kind of masculinity, is valued more than the right of other people to live.
Cars are terrible for our health. Air pollution, noise and crashes shorten everyone’s life spans. Yet right now, the Berlin government is spending €600 million to build an additional 3.4 kilometres of highway through Neukölln and Treptow — which we know will lead to more cars and more pollution. As the climate crisis intensifies, we need to stop this Autobahn insanity right now, so we can invest that money in free public transport, affordable trains, and bike lanes.
Want more Red Flag? Here’s why Nathaniel thinks electric cars are a scam