Them's the brakes: German drivers face new speed limits

At 124 m.p.h., Kay Herschelmann is passing cars as if they were potted plants on roadside windowsills.

In the right lane, a Mercedes sedan becomes his latest conquest.

"He could catch up to me if he wanted to," says Mr. Herschelmann, calmly gripping the steering wheel of his Saab station wagon.

He maneuvers behind a car that just a few seconds ago was far away. The Saab's bumper nearly kisses the other car's license plate, before the slower vehicle wisely changes lanes. The speedometer ticks upward.

Ask Germans what freedom is, and they are likely to tell you about letting a 200-horsepower engine eat up autobahn pavement. In a country that diligently separates its garbage, where pedestrians actually obey crosswalk signals, and where daily life is dictated by countless rules and regulations, the autobahn offers Germans a precious ribbon of freedom.

Though most of its neighboring countries have self-imposed speed limits, lead-footed Germans have so far resisted calls by the European Union (EU) to slow down.

But their speedracing days may be numbered.

Experts estimate that in the next few years, the EU will impose a standard speed limit on all European highways, including the autobahn.

German politicians could beat them to it.

Growing concerns about safety and the environment combined with high gas prices has led to calls in recent weeks from across the political spectrum for a speed limit. "We have to ask ourselves what price we pay to live out this feeling of freedom," says Josef Goeppel, a parliamentarian for the conservative Christian Social Union.

For decades, Germany's Green Party was virtually alone in arguing that a speed limit would limit both CO2 emissions and fuel consumption. The fact that conservative politicians like Mr. Goeppel have jumped on the bandwagon signals serious intent.

"I don't think a speed limit will solve all problems, but it is an important measure, especially regarding the environment," says Goeppel. "The alternative is to make gas more expensive."

A recent poll shows that, for the first time, politicians could have the backing of the populace, about 52 percent of whom were in favor of a speed limit, while 45 percent were against it. "That was different a few years ago," says Goeppel.

The autobahn, the first stretches of which were built in 1929, holds a special place in German society. The structure of it has changed little since Hitler expanded the highway system in the 1930s to speed the delivery of military supplies across the country.

As the country rose from the ashes of WWII, it was the well-built, carefully maintained autobahn that sped along the West German economic miracle. And the right to drive as fast as one pleases on certain stretches became sacrosanct.

But a number of factors, not the least of which is the aging of the German population, has contributed to a gradual change in opinion. Germany's central location - in a European Union that has expanded to include eight former Eastern bloc countries - has contributed to clogging the autobahn with semi-trucks delivering goods across the EU.

The sometimes deadly combination of creeping semis and speeding cars on highways that are often only two lanes in each direction has already led to speed caps on some stretches of the autobahn, with positive results. An 80 m.p.h. limit on the autobahn between Berlin and Hamburg reduced annual traffic-related deaths from eight to zero last year, reports Rainer Hillgaertner of the Automobilclub Europa, one of Germany's biggest organizations for drivers.

The safety argument was supported by a high-profile case involving Rolf Fischer, a Mercedes test driver who was sentenced in February to 18 months in prison for reckless driving on the autobahn that resulted in the death of a young mother and her child. The ensuing media storm increased awareness of autobahn dangers, but critics of speed limits remain stubborn.

"Those are sad, isolated stories but those are not the norm on our streets," says Maximillian Maurer of the car-driver organization ADAC, one of the more powerful car-lobby organizations in Germany. He points to Europe-wide statistics that show Germany below other countries in the number of traffic-related deaths.

Enough measures have already been taken to ease the stress on drivers, says Maurer. Roughly 40 percent of the autobahn now has speed limits. Electronic signs in some of the unregulated stretches "suggest" speeds based on traffic and the time of day.

That leaves about 4,970 miles open for speedsters. And they want it kept that way.

"Why would you want to regulate something that isn't important," says Herschelmann. "If there's space and room, why put a speed limit on it?"

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