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Germany

Autobahn Tailgater Conviction Revives Speed Limit Debate

Rolf Fischer has 18 months in jail to think about whether he was driving too fast on the day his actions killed two people. On the outside, a debate is raging on whether all Germans should be forced to cut their speed.

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Green Party officials want to stop highway racing.

The conviction of "Turbo" Rolf Fischer, the 34-year-old Mercedes test driver who was found guilty of causing the deaths of a young woman and her two-year-old daughter while traveling at 250km/h (155 mph) on a German motorway on Tuesday, has re-opened the debate for stricter controls on the Autobahn system.

While in the wake of the ground-breaking verdict the German transport ministry announced that it "does not believe a general speed limit makes sense" and that it was more logical to redesign known accident spots, members of the Greens party, the government's coalition junior partner, have begun to resurrect the argument for tighter speed controls on German motorways.

Stau auf der Autobahn

"The most reasonable solution would be the introduction of a speed limit of 130 kilometers per hour (80 mph) on German highways," Reinhard Loske, the deputy leader of the Greens' parliamentary faction, told the Berliner Zeitung newspaper. Loske's views were supported by the Greens traffic expert Albert Schmidt: "Such a speed limit would be very helpful and would make the traffic more secure and move more fluently."

Reinhard Weis, the traffic expert for the Social Democrats in parliament, agreed. "A speed limit would definitely be an effective tool to increase traffic safety."


Others said a speed limit could have prevented the tragedy. "With a general speed limit of 120 kilometers per hour (75 mph), the deadly accident would not have happened," said René Wassmer, the executive director of the German Traffic Club, which promotes traffic safety. He added that Germany is still the only land worldwide which has no speed limitation on highways.

Slowing down saves lives

The newspaper report also carried news of an EU investigation which shows that the lowering of the average speed by one kilometre reduces the number of accidents where personal injury occurs by about 2 percent.

Autobahnraser Urteil in Karlsruhe, Kreuz von Jasmin und Rebecca

Two crosses for Jasmin A. and her one-year-old daughter Rebecca.

According to the German Society for the Rights of Traffic Accident Victims, more than 646,000 people were killed in traffic accidents between 1947 and 2002 in Germany and nearly 24 million were injured. "The fact that no increases in speed limit have been introduced by the federal transport ministry in that time makes it jointly guilty in all those traffic accidents," said Chairperson Angelika Oidtmann in an interview with German broadcaster N-TV.

The myth of unlimited speeding

For many, this discussion of tightening controls on German autobahns will be confusing. The almost legendary mystique surrounding the German highway is built on the myth that there are no controls to be tightened in the first place. In fact, the reality is a little different than the legend.

Far from being the free-for-all that many adrenalin tourists may consider the German road system to be, speed limits are a fact of life on most of Germany's highways, with signs suggesting a recommended speed limit of 130 km/h posted along most autobahns. Urban sections and a few dangerous stretches sometimes have posted speed limits as "low" as 100 km/h (62 mph). Towns and cities have restrictions of 50 km/h (31 mph).

Fundamental right of German drivers

However, the option to drive at unrestricted speed on the autobahn remains with the 130 km/h limit set for drivers to observe at their discretion. In most cases, the right to drive as fast as desired is upheld by many Germans as a fundamental part of their personal and federal constitution. And in a country where the car, not the home, is a person's castle, many Germans have the vehicles to match.

Herein lies the problem. With people driving at speeds that suit themselves, the differences in speed can lead to the sort of behavior and result that brought Rolf Fischer a sentence of 18 months imprisonment.

Despite this, any restriction on the autobahn speed limit would undoubtedly cause an outrage in Germany where these rights that are so stringently upheld by many motorway drivers.

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