The Autobahn has been under attack for decades now, and now German reader Mark Linde explains why hating Justin Bieber, not eating sauerkraut, and a car club corruption scandal could be able to end the country's proud derestricted highways after all. Photo Credit: Thorsten
Oh boy, this is going to be a long one. Make yourself a coffee or open up a beer and then listen to some music while you unravel my thoughts.
I'm a German gearhead.
"Lucky bastard", you think because I have the largest public racetrack in the world right on my doorstep: No, not the Nordschleife - The famous Autobahn.
This mythical strip of tarmac is the last retreat for controlled craziness and legal lunacy. The Autobahn is our hero fighting against the health and safety madness and ravaging ban culture. It's the petrolhead's Mecca and every Jalops bucket list destination.
And I don't care for it.
"You fucking car-hating millennial bastard", you think right now. Not exactly correct, because I love cars and the culture surrounding it. That's why I'm writing here after all. I will use the metric system by the way. Only cause I can and to annoy you. Get a converter ready if you need one.
Ready? Here we go:
The truth is that the Autobahn is simply a transportation device for me, and I never particularly enjoyed driving on it. It's absolutely possible that I would think different about the Autobahn, if I was a gearhead anywhere else in the world, and only knew the Autobahn from watching countless videos, reading glorifying articles and listening to mind-blowing stories. Maybe if I was a supercar owner, I'd cherish the possibilities the derestricted bits have to offer me more. But those sentiments and impressions are mostly illusions, dreams or just a small tessera of the mosaic that is the Autobahn experience.
In real life the actual driving is mostly an uneasy mixture of sensations somewhere between boring, tiresome and stressful. I honestly can't think of a difference to other motor-/highways all around the world. And while some of you might claim to be leadfoot heroes, for most of us driving 180 km/h and more is a white-knuckled tunnel vision affair. Yes, it is a thrill, but not necessarily an enjoyable one. And no, I'm not a wimp and my driving abilities are sufficient, I guess.
But don't forget that you are not driving on a racetrack. You share the road with tired truckers who drove non-stop from Uzbekistan with only one working disc brake and unsecured cargo, aggressive wannabe racecar drivers and stressed out businessmen sealing a deal in their company cars while flashing their lights at clueless dimwits in diesel hatches with whom you won't even share your Forza account.
And are you truly turned on by straight line speeding? This is not a slap against drag racing which is very different, I'm not an idiot. Yet, unless you are in an obscenely powerful car there is not really much happening after you reach about 150 km/h. Yes, you are travelling increasingly faster, but the wide road is diluting the speed and you are not exactly feeling any g-forces right until you have to slam on the brake because a dutch pig-transporter pulled out of his lane 300 m ahead of you. Thanks a lot "Love Machine". No, I really don't need the derestricted Autobahn.
That's just me of course. But I'm afraid all of you who like the idea of high speed ecstasy have to be strong now. As some of you might know this protected area of outstanding unnatural velocity is severely endangered.
The speed limit debate is a reoccurring theme in every silly season over here, and every year this topic is buried once real political issues are discussed again in Berlin, like what reform project has to be postponed next and who is to blame for stalling this time around.
So why do I think that every Jalop should be planning a trip to Germany in the not too distant future? What is going on over here in "Schland" and what do I think about it?
For decades the arguments of the debate are well established and cemented. I give you a few facts first. "I only believe in statistics that I doctored myself", Churchill famously said, so I tried to find data that is up to date and trustworthy.
Germany's road network is 640.000 km long. For the statistical analysis we ignore the minor municipality roads, so 230.700 km are remaining of which 12.800 km (5,55%) are Autobahnen. About 30% of the Autobahn is already permanently restricted with varying speed limits. Sadly, 3.340 people died on German roads last year. 304 or 9,1% of them on the Autobahn. As the very vulnerable cyclists and pedestrians are for obvious reasons not travelling on the Autobahn, the number of fatalities is quite high, and hints to the dangers of going fast. This is also underlined by the fact that accidents on the Autobahn only account for 6,28% of all the accidents on the roads.
That's not saying much about the traffic volume though. About one third of road traffic in Germany is carried by the Autobahn. The rate of fatalities per billion vehicle-kilometers traveled is – depending on the source - around 2 to 3 compared to the rate of around 7 to 9 fatalities on other roads. Although the data is differing, the fatality rate is unquestionably lower than for example on the restricted motor-/highways in Austria, Belgium and the US.
It's very difficult to find data about the causes of accidents and whether they happened on a derestricted section or not. I won't start to guess here.
Based on those facts some say the Autobahn is safe enough, and there is no need for changing anything. Others believe a society should try to protect everyone from unnecessary hazards. So every accident related to what is perceived as excessive speeding – no matter how many there actually are – should be prevented by enforcing a limit.
This is also the right time to debunk a myth. The German Autobahn is not exactly derestricted because there is an advisory speed limit of 130 km/h. To quote Wikipedia: "The advisory speed is not enforceable, however, being involved in an accident driving at higher speeds can lead to the driver being deemed at least partially responsible due to "increased operating danger". So basically it means: Do what you want, but hope nothing goes wrong while driving faster than 130 km/h. You will become liable!
Now it gets really complicated. Heated and very ideological debates are raging over environmental and health related effects of a speed limit. I won't get into boring details about CO2-emissions and noise-levels here because the data is mostly relying on estimates which are quite often tainted by whoever made the study and what they want to achieve with it. Undoubtedly there will be measurable improvements – i.e. lower emissions and noise-levels. Whether those are actually making a difference in the bigger picture and therefore justify a federally mandated blanket speed limit is the crux of the matter.
The speed limit debate, however, isn't just about the facts. I have to be careful with comparisons here since the topic I will compare it to is a sensitive issue and I have admittedly not the knowledge to talk about it. But the nature of the speed limit debate appears to be similar to the gun politics in the US. Both debates are strangely emotional and thus illogical. That's were it gets interesting and my opinion comes into play.
The Autobahn is as German as Sauerkraut, Bier, Wurst, Oktoberfest, Wirtschaftswunder, the D-Mark, Social market economy, organisational skills, engineering excellence and whatever stereotypes you can think of. It's difficult to talk about stereotypes, for I have no idea what you guys really know and think about Germans and Germany.
It's pretty safe to assume, however, that the Autobahn debate is an indicator for the German mindset.
Germany is like an elderly person in your neighbourhood. He is known to be hard-working, reliable, fairly wealthy and his nice house and garden are exceptionally clean. You don't mind talking to him over the fence, but he is too humorless and socially awkward to invite him over to an evening with your friends. Because you are curious you google his name and find out he murdered someone decades ago. This is why he is so serious and awkward you think. He is organised and correct to give his life a structure and to make a good impression on everybody else while struggling with confidence problems and guilt. And now, of course, you feel uncomfortable around him.
The clichés I listed earlier may be true, but so are the following ones: Hitler, national-socialism, holocaust, militarism, punctuality, sincerity, dullness, smugness, arrogance and Hitler. Yes, Hitler has to be mentioned at least twice. It's not easy to be German, believe me or ask Jeremy Clarkson. Germans have a very complicated relationship with "their" country and lack a patriotic confidence nearly every other nation celebrates. Some countries are even proud of their stereotypes.
I'm 30 years old. My grandparents were teenagers during the Second World War and weren't involved at all. Yet, I'm German and will always be somehow connected to the history of the Fatherland. And when you look at it closely even the positive stereotypes aren't exactly friendly, warm and full of joie de vivre. Furthermore as a German I can't identify myself with the Oktoberfest, Wurst and other clichés. Are you Americans all Cowboys, eat Hamburgers and play Baseball?
But for every sightly patriotic or ashamed German there always was the Autobahn. Yeah, ok, and football. But in spite of their successes those mullet haired monads and their rather joyless and sometimes brutish interpretation of the game weren't exactly charming ambassadors.
The Autobahn on the other hand is well known all around the world and a famous tourist attraction. And since "Autobahn" is a rather positive buzzword it became a marketing tool for our (car-)industry. Not only is it a showcase for organisational skill and engineering excellence it also provides a much needed nuttiness you won't otherwise associate with Germany.
An Italian Autobahn? Sure!
Full throttle Russians? Naturally!
Those rational Germans and dangerous speeds? Never!
Not only foreigners are enchanted by the legendary asphalted wonder of the world. The Germans themselves created a fabulous lore around it.
There is a bit of national pride involved when "we" think that for example Italians and Russians couldn't make such a system work. They'd all be roadkill in a decade or so – they are just too undisciplined. (Attention: This is only a stereotype!)
"Freie Fahrt für freie Bürger!" (unlimited speed/travelling for free citizens) is a very controversial motto created by the ADAC (the biggest German car club) in the 70s and is used to this day by different anti-speed limit groups and lobbyists. It encapsulates more or less intentionally a democratic spirit which could be misused to distinguish Western Germany and it's democracy from national-socialism and socialism - specifically in the GDR - during the earlier years of the Federal Republic. Being against the derestricted Autobahn could therefore be linked to being against freedom and democratic values. Does this remind you of something?
As I tried to explain, the Autobahn is a cultural icon. Any politician who seriously wanted to change something about the order of things had to fight the windmills of strong lobbyists (car clubs and (car-)industry) and the voters romanticism and pride.
However, since the very emotional but also costly reunification over two decades ago, Germany slowly but surely gets overtaken by reality and the old stereotypes start to wear off. The traditional virtues are fading in context of the almighty globalisation and immigration. "Nobody" eats Sauerkraut anymore, but "everyone" eats at fast food franchises you Americans know too well.
Our social market economy is beginning to show the first signs of weakness against the global competition and the social aspects of our system have taken a back seat in favour of banks and big business. Wirtschaftswunder and D-Mark are history, while Euro crisis, recession and a rapidly aging population are in our collective minds.
And then there is the whole EU-monstrosity ruling over us which nobody understands let alone loves. Changes are everywhere and inevitable.
But the traffic flow on the Autobahn is still rolling as unhindered as ever. Comforting, right?
That's why people are so reluctant to give up this pillar of germaness.
Yet, there are a few reasons why I believe that the days of terminal velocity are numbered.
- German politics
Environmental concerns and the planned Energy transition make fundamental changes necessary, everywhere. The Autobahn is in addition no longer considered a sacred ground. The LKW-Maut (truck-toll) was implemented in 2005 and a toll for (foreign) cars is being planned.
- The EU
Even if no German politician will ever dare to commit political suicide by fighting for a speed limit, Brussels, mostly not depending on any voters opinion, might just do that. Our politicians can point to scapegoats at some obscure EU institution, make a sad face for the cameras and say that there is nothing they can do about it.
- "Car-hating Millennials"
They are becoming a stronger political force with every election. Speed and horsepower are the past, green and organic is the future. For them it's all about health, safety and sustainability for themselves and the(ir) children.
- The car industry
Traditionally the carmakers in Germany had a strong bond with the Autobahn. Like I mentioned it was the ideal marketing device to convey the benefits of horsepower and German quality for them. Since the car-hating millennials want eco-friendly, economical and safe cars, "speed" is - sadly? - not marketable anymore. So why should they keep on lobbying for the lavish deathtrap that is the Autobahn?
- Car clubs
The biggest car club in Germany, the mighty ADAC, was very successful in the past in keeping the politicians and voters in line. However, beginning in January this year a series of scandals shook the club resulting in people quitting their memberships and a huge loss of credibility. The influence of the ADAC might not be as strong as before the crisis.
Passing on money by losing thrill-seeking tourists may possibly be the only real disadvantage of a speed limit although I don't think it would have a noticeable economic impact. The Autobahn is not our Panama Canal after all.
- Cultural importance and German identity
Does anyone seriously believe any of the stereotypes I wrote here earlier or did you at one point? We are living in an era of global communication and changing identities. We are not just defining ourselves as "German", "American" or "Croatian" anymore. Additionally we are "Jalops", "Manga-enthusiasts" or "backpacking adventurers", and find like-minded people all over the world. We don't need national symbols and reassuring stereotypes for our self esteem anymore when we can all hate on Justin Bieber together. Especially inside the EU, despite the distrust against the political side of the integration, there is an ever growing common identity. So, would any German lose his identity by losing the unique Autobahn? Most of my friends are indifferent towards the Autobahn already, so I think "we" can manage without it. I also think that in a way "we" have to implement a speed limit in order to shed all the old, unwanted clichés together with it once and for all. "We" are not living in the 50s anymore, so let's show it to everyone. I have to admit that I'm ignoring a huge part of our society that is frightened by change. They cling on to old habits and symbols in order to feel comfortable. For them the Autobahn is calming continuity and a reminder of the past when everything was - seemingly - easier.
It's difficult for me to decide which side to take here. I'm annoyed with the ban culture, exaggerated political correctness and very much in favour of making your own (sometimes wrong) decisions. And I'm afraid of what will be abolished after the Autobahn derestriction falls. The Ring?
Still, as you might have guessed already I'm all for a federally mandated blanket speed limit of let's say 130 km/h. In this case I do think that every unnecessary victim is one too many and in my opinion sustainability and health come before absolute speed - no matter how insignificant the reduction of CO2-emissions and noise-levels actually are.
What do you think? Maybe this example might help to heat up the discussion.
I'm not saying that the Autobahn as we know it will be gone tomorrow, and I won't embarrass myself by guessing how many years of terminal velocity are still to come. It will be long enough for anyone of you to start saving money and come over here before it's too late. That's for sure!
Just don't argue, that I didn't warn you early enough!