BERLIN - A government commission has recommended a speed limit on the autobahns in Germany, the only rich country where a driver doesn’t need to watch the speedometer on most of the highways. So the nation is debating what speed restrictions can actually achieve in terms of traffic safety and climate protection, a conversation the rest of the world should tune in to, as well.
Germany actually has speed limits on about 40 percent of its 13,000 km of autobahns, where authorities believe road conditions warrant it and where road repairs are taking place. But the other 60 percent are a territory of freedom unlike anything elsewhere..
The absence of speed limits is a gift from two powerful lobbies: the car-owners’ association ADAC, with more than 20 million members, and the German Association of the Automotive Industry, which represents carmakers and has had close ties to every post-World War II German government.
Germans love fast cars. In 2017, 29 percent of cars registered in Germany had a maximum speed of more than 200 kph. The auto industry loves selling them, making higher profit margins on more powerful cars. That explains large increases in the power of new cars since 2001.
German drivers really use their unusual freedom. Sometimes, doing a relaxed 160 kph on a highway, I barely perceive a Porsche zipping by at 200 kph or more. But many motorists stick to the recommended speed, introduced in 1978, of 130 kph. A government recommendation carries a lot of weight in Germany, and fuel is expensive and environmental awareness widespread.
The German Federal Environmental Agency calculated in 2012 that cutting the speed limit to 120 kph would reduce carbon dioxide emissions from cars on German autobahns by 9 percent, or 3 million tons per year. Environmentalists also argue that making it impossible to drive at 200 kph would stimulate people to buy, and carmakers to produce, less powerful and therefore less fuel-hungry vehicles.
The other important reason to restrict highway speeds is the potential impact on safety. A recent Swedish study showed that cutting the speed limit from 90 kph to 80 kph on country roads saved about 14 lives per year in Sweden, while increasing the speed limit on motorways increased the number of serious injuries. Another 2018 paper, focusing on speed-limit increases in Canada, also showed a trend toward more accidents. In Germany, speeding is the most widespread factor in traffic deaths. One could argue that road deaths are going down in Germany despite the absence of a nationwide speed limit — they decreased 13 percent between 2010 and 2017 — but that’s below the average improvement in the European Union.
It’s fair to assume that more deadly accidents take place on autobahn sections where drivers can go as fast as they want to. In 2016, 17.1 deaths per 1,000 km occurred on unrestricted autobahns; on speed-restricted ones, just 12.1 people per 1,000 km died.
Yet opponents of speed restrictions also make strong arguments. Michael Schreckenberg, a professor at Duisburg-Essen University who studies traffic jams, points out that traffic only accounts for about 12 percent of CO2 emissions. So even if environmentalists’ calculations are correct, the effect of a speed limit on pollution would be small. ADAC calculates that emissions would only go down by some 0.5 percent nationwide. The effect would become even smaller as more hybrid and electric vehicles hit the road.
It’s harder to shoot down the safety argument, but some data do undermine it. The autobahns are actually quite safe; in 2017, they accounted, according to ADAC, for about one-third of the miles driven on German roads but only 12 percent of deadly accidents. Most German traffic deaths, about 60 percent, occur on country roads, where speed limits already exist.
Besides, cars with a maximum speed of more than 200 kph take part in 30 percent of incidents that result in injuries and 32 percent of deadly crashes. That’s roughly equivalent to their share of the German car fleet. One can hate those heavy, powerful vehicles as they fly past on the highway, but they aren’t really deadlier than slower cars.
Some of the countries where traffic deaths have declined the fastest — notably Greece and Estonia — have actually increased speed limits in the last two years as a boon to business and commuters.
As in many public debates, the argument over autobahn speed limits is freighted by ideology and emotion. The leftist and environmentalist part of the political spectrum supports speed limits. Conservatives and nationalists are against them. Transport Minister Andreas Scheuer of the conservative Bavarian political party Christian Social Union, said recently that restrictions would “defy common sense.” The nationalist Alternative for Germany party is equally vocal. “Germany’s CO2 emissions account for about 2 percent of the global total,” said AfD legislator Dirk Spaniel. “It can’t be that we must pay for that with our citizens’ mobility.”
The main conservative argument against speed limits isn’t so much a factual rebuttal as a libertarian statement: Why introduce restrictions that don’t solve big problems?
“Germany is an overregulated country where people whose desire for freedom has been extinguished urge more bans — also along those narrow, congested freedom paths, the motorways,” Uli Poschardt, editor of the daily Die Welt, wrote in a recent column. “The weak and the slow deserve solidarity, but so do those who like it fast and whom volunteer traffic educators are trying forcibly to decelerate.”
Though 51 percent of Germans support a 130-km speed limit, according to a recent poll, 47 percent are against it. I doubt that it makes sense for the government to follow the transport commission’s recommendation when public opinion is so evenly split.
There are more effective ways to fight emissions. The German government is debating a program for phasing out coal in energy generation, for example. Automakers are adapting to stricter emissions standards.
There’s also no national emergency when it comes to road mortality. With 38.4 traffic deaths per million residents in 2017, Germany is one of Europe’s safest countries in which to travel by car.
Neighboring France, where commuters have protested violently against the recent lowering of the speed limit on country roads, had 53.2 deaths per million residents.
German conservatives are right: There’s no compelling reason to take away one of the few extraordinary freedoms that set the country apart from the rest of the world. Just like the sparseness of security cameras and the existence of bars where one can smoke, the freedom to fly down the autobahn at cannonball speed is an important symbol in a country that has a crushing history with bans and restrictions. That there are still unrestricted stretches of road is part an unwritten guarantee that Germans will prefer freedom in the future. It can be more dangerous to chip away at that guarantee than to tolerate a bit of wild driving.
Leonid Bershidsky is Bloomberg columnist.