Germans autobahned

TO MANY German motorists, it is the last great freedom in a rule-bound land: the right to drive at breakneck speed on the country's famous autobahns.

Forcing Audi, Porsche, Mercedes and BMW drivers to ease off the accelerator would be akin to asking Americans to give up the right to bear arms.

But efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions could put an end to the ability to drive as fast as mechanically possible on those roads with no speed limit.

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Many German administrations and various ministers down the years have mooted the possibility of speed limits on autobahns, but the resulting backlash from drivers and the motoring lobby has always been so fierce that they got parked in the bureaucratic pending tray.

However, the new proposal comes not from domestic politicians but from the European Union's environment tsar.

Following last week's EU summit on climate control, Stavros Dimas, the environment commissioner, told a German newspaper yesterday: "There are so many areas where we senselessly waste energy and harm the environment. A simple measure that would help would be a general speed limit imposed on the autobahns in Germany.

"Speed limits are very sensible on several levels and completely normal in most EU states and also in America. Only in Germany would this be a peculiar controversy."

He said Germany, as the EU's leading industrial power, had a duty to lead the way to reduce carbon emissions.

But the ADAC, the German equivalent of the RAC, said the idea was "impractical and unwanted", while individual motorists were also opposed. "I can't see it coming in because Germany's autobahns are famous the world over and speed itself doesn't kill - dangerous driving does," said Ulrich Lenz, who owns a Mercedes CLS-500 capable of 155mph and is a member of an anti-speed limit lobby group.

"Besides, if this is about pollution, tackle the brown coal power stations and the cheap airlines before hitting the motorist."

For decades, Germany's Green Party was virtually alone in arguing that a speed limit would limit both emissions and fuel consumption. Various lawmakers of both left and right then tested the water but always left well alone. But the day of the outside-lane speed merchant may be coming to an end. One poll showed 52 per cent of respondents in favour of a speed limit, while 45 per cent were against it.

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Germany's central location - in an EU that has expanded to include eight former eastern bloc countries - has contributed to the clogging of the autobahn with lorries delivering goods across Europe.

The sometimes deadly combination of creeping lorries and speeding cars on highways that are often only two lanes in each direction has already led to speed limits on many stretches of the autobahn, with positive results. An 80mph limit on the autobahn between Berlin and Hamburg reduced annual traffic-related deaths from eight to zero in 2004.


AUTOBAHNS, the first stretches of which were built in 1929, hold a special place in German society.

The structure of them has changed little since Hitler expanded the highway system in the 1930s to speed the delivery of military supplies.

These days, the lure of driving at unlimited speeds is so appealing that wealthy Chinese tourists pile into Germany on luxury holidays tailored around lightning quick motoring on the famous roads.

But a number of factors, not the least of which is the ageing of the German population, has contributed to a gradual change in opinion over whether this should continue.