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Germany

In the Fast Lane to Prison

A German court has sentenced a man to 18 months in prison for killing a mother and daughter through reckless driving on a motorway. The accident has triggered a debate on uncontrolled speeding on the autobahns.

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Two crosses on the A5 autobahn act as a reminder of the tragic accident last summer.

Rolf Fischer's passion for high speeds proved to be his undoing on Tuesday when a German court found the 34-year-old Mercedes test driver guilty of causing the deaths of a young woman and her two-year-old daughter while travelling at 250km/h on a German motorway.

Nicknamed "Turbo-Rolf" among his colleagues for his preference for fast cars, the DaimlerChrysler engineer now faces 18 months in prison.

Fischer has also been fired by DaimlerChrysler following the court sentencing.

A case of reckless speeding

The state prosecution in Karlsruhe, who had called for a prison sentence of one year and nine months, said that on the day of the accident in summer last year, Fischer was tailgaiting a car driven by a woman named only as Jasmin A. on the A5 autobahn.

The engineer was on his way to a car test-track in the northern city of Papenburg in a company-owned, dark Mercedes SLK. Fischer forced the 21-year-old woman, driving in a much smaller Kia, to shift into one of the slow lanes.

Startled by his agressiveness and speed, the woman lost control of her car while swerving to change lanes. The car spun across two lanes and smashed into some trees. She and her daughter, Rebecca, died instantly. Fischer sped off from the scene.

Police said they had finally found Fischer on the basis of petrol station receipts, mobile phone records and the testimony of a witness. Witnesses during the trial also identified Fischer's Mercedes as having caused the accident.

However Fischer himself had pleaded not guilty to manslaughter, fleeing from the scene of the accident and serious traffic violations during the trial. Despite his colorful nickname, which has been splashed in the tabloid press, Fischer had denied his love for fast driving. "It's a complete mystery to me why people say that I have an aggressive driving style," he said during the trial. "I never forced anybody off the road nor did I notice anything about an accident," he said.

Speed limits anyone?

The case has prompted new questions about the lack of speed limits on Germany's 11,393-kilometer-long autobahn network designed in the 1920s. Germany remains the only country in the world that allows drivers to stretch their cars to the limit, a feature that also lures speed-happy tourists unable to convert their motorways into racing tracks in their own countries.

But experts are now repeating calls for a review of the country's fast-lane culture.

"We think it is a big problem because Germany is the only country world-wide where no limits of speed on the motorway exists. That means there are a lot of parts on the motorway where people can drive as fast as they want to," Daniel Kluge of the German Ministry of Transport and Environment told Deutsche Welle. "So we have big problems where there are cars with less speed -- then you have a big speed difference."

The losers usually are slower drivers caught in the fast lane, who are subject to an irritable flash of headlights or impatient drivers demanding clear passage.

The German Automobile Association, ADAC, has repeatedly pointed out that there is a recommended top speed of 130km/h on all German motorways.

But Kluge pointed out there are no incentives to stick to the limit. "If you go faster that that there is no possibility to be stopped by the police so … you in fact drive as fast as you want to."

Speeding: personal freedom?

Though the "Turbo-Rolf" case has stirred national debate in the country about speeding, tailgaiting or flashing headlights on motorways, Kluge said it's unlikely to radically alter the apparent German fascination with speed.

He said there were several reasons for it. "One part is the advertising of the automobile industry; in Germany it is nearly a tradition to advertise cars which drive safe with high speed," Kluge said. "Another thing is that many people in Germany still think it is a kind of freedom and that it's their right to have this personal feeling of speed."

But many believe that a prison sentence will now send a clear signal that there is indeed a limit to personal freedom on German motorways.

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